Obama and Affirmative Action

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It's worth actually watching Obama responding to questions at UNITY and his specific assessment of the future of Affirmative Action before you decide what you think. As you guys know, I've always been kind of luke-warm to AA. I think that pro-AA folks have a point that there's going to be AA no matter what (legacies for instance), and the real question is what kind. That said, the prospect of an upper middle class black or Latino kid getting preference over a poor white kid from Virginia should rankle all of us. I basically agree with Obama's assessment--that AA isn't really the future, that AA does nothing for masses of black kids dropping out of school, that decent health-care and better schools will be the best AA, in that they will help whites and disproportionately help blacks, but finally that the time is not yet now to phase them out.

Chris Bodenner, who is officially my new favorite sparring partner, cites the The Corner's reaction to Obama's speech:

Obama's criticism is wrongheaded for at least three reasons:  (1) it is obviously preferential policies that are divisive, not their abolition; (2) the “big problem” of helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds can be addressed by helping people of all colors who are disadvantaged, rather than crudely and unfairly using race as a proxy for disadvantage; and (3) Obama himself has recognized as much, ... acknowledging the divisiveness of preferential treatment (in his Philadelphia speech), and the fact that his own daughters, for starters, come from privileged backgrounds and thus are “probably” not deserving of preferential treatment.
...
This is a solid, important commitment by [McCain] to the principle of E pluribus unum, and Americans across the political spectrum, but especially conservatives, should applaud him.  As for Barack Obama: This is a critical moment in his campaign.  Is he a candidate of change who will transcend race and bring us all together, rejecting divisive policies he knows in his heart are outdated and irrelevant—or just another Democratic pol who lacks the courage to stand up to powerful but aging interests in his own party, which remain hopelessly infatuated with identity politics and insist on perpetuating a set of policies that have always been unfair and divisive and are now outmoded to boot?

And Lashawn Barber:

The whole point of the civil rights movement was to bar the government from preferring one citizen over another based on factors like race. But our government continues this odious practice, and I can think of nothing more unfair or divisive, no matter which race or sex benefits from the discrimination. A government with the power to discriminate in favor of blacks has the power to discriminate against blacks.

Here is something that grates on my nerves as much as the term “African American”: People use the terms “affirmative action” and “race preferences” interchangeably, but they are not even synonymous. Affirmative action was a policy designed to provide qualified blacks with opportunities to compete with others for jobs. The “cast a wider” imagery described the process. The goal was to include more qualified blacks into the hiring pool. Affirmative action as conceived quickly became what’s known today as race preferences. Under this standard, blacks are not expected to compete against whites, only against one another. Public colleges and universities are notorious for unofficial separate admissions tracks, for example. It is truly tasteless.


A quick aside--I believe in looking at wealth, instead of race, in terms of AA. Having said that, I admire Obama's refusal to use AA as some sort of foil to reach white voters. There's a basic logic problem here, as well as one of perspective. Barber's proceeds from a reductionist argument--that the Civil Rights movement was about barring "the government from preferring one citizen over another based on factors like race." In fact, the CRM had much a loftier goal--full citizenship for African-Americans. The problem wasn't merely race-based discrimination (i.e. you can't go here because of your color) but an entire system that worked to cripple black communities. Indeed when you consider the period spanning post-Reconstruction to the CRM, simply describing that era as a time when whites preferred "one citizen over another based on factors like race" is Orwellian.

For blacks, Jim Crow America meant, not simply white people not wanting to be around them, it meant a concerted effort to restrict the creation of wealth. Redlining wasn't just offering a racial preference to whites (indeed it actually punished whites for living around black people) it was a government-conceived and sponsored effort to devalue the homes of black people, thus draining what little wealth there was  in the communities. When post-slavery Southern and Midwestern blacks--following Booker T's conservative line--created wealth by working the land, and building their own businesses, white terrorists violently undermined their efforts at every turn while the government refused to do its most basic job--protecting its citizens. The spectacle of lynching is horrifying--but its actual effects, dissuading black people from competing with whites--were (are) devastating. Indeed couple that with housing discrimination, job discrimination, the defunding of segregated schools and you see a comprehensive effort to render black people a servile class.

Affirmative Action is fundamentally different. I suspect even it's critics would agree, that AA simply does not have the power--nor does it seek--to destroy the very structures (the right to vote, the right to hold a job, to own a home, to go to a decent school) essential for any community to progress. Let's be clear--that doesn't mean that Affirmative Action is perfect or even the best solution. I'm convinced that there are better ways to deal with the race-gap, and I have problems with pro-AAers who think that fate of black America hangs on this one issue. 

But the conservative who principally believes that race-based AA is wrong, who is interested in honest dialogue and getting folks--especially black folks--to see his argument, needs to recognize two barriers. The first is that the very same outlets that now raise the banner of King, or talk about fairness under the law, are the very same outlets that backed segregation and thought nothing of King while he was alive, who thought nothing of Mandela when he was in jail. The second thing concerns intellectual honesty. Any attempt to argue that AA is somehow equivalent of what black people when through pre-CRM will be met--rightfully--with raucous laughter.

A conservative critique needs to say that AA is wrong not because it looks like Jim Crow, but because its merits are wanting. Then the critique needs to say what we should be doing instead. Black folks would listen to that. I think many of us--especially in the middle class--agree with Barack, there's no way our kids should be treated like they just stepped off the plantation, while all whites are treated like Boston Brahmin.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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