Barack Obama: Affirmative Action's Best Poster Child?

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Some have accused the president of getting into Harvard solely because of race. That's the least persuasive criticism of him we've ever heard

Obama in graduation robes - Molly Riley - banner.jpg

In his new digs at The Daily Caller, Mickey Kaus notes the latest talking-point attacks regarding whether President Obama deserved admission to elite universities, and posits that it's as good a time as any to debate affirmative action:

The biggest problem with race preferences is that they taint the achievements, not just of those who benefit from them, but of everyone in the beneficiary group-even those who would have gotten into the college or gotten the job, etc., without the preference. That is an unfairness Obama may acutely feel. Race preferences are a big reason blacks feel they have to be twice as good as everyone else to measure up in society's eyes-which is a powerful argument for ending the preferences.

The amazing thing isn't that we would have a debate on this divisive issue now but that Obama's been able to duck it for so long-in part by preemptively hinting that he'd replace race-based preferences with class-based preferences.

All of that seems wrong to me.

The reason that President Obama has been able "to duck this" is that opponents of affirmative action realize that if he was in fact a beneficiary, he is perhaps the ideal example of the policy gone right. His admission to Harvard Law School demonstrably wasn't tainted by the notion that he didn't belong there: He made sure of that by graduating magna cum laude, his peers selected him editor of the Harvard Law Review, and classmates and professors gush on and on about how impressed they were by the guy. Then there's the institution's perspective. Harvard University is obsessed with training future leaders. In Barack Obama, they got a United States Senator ... and we haven't even gotten to the obvious argument, as offered by Matt Yglesias:

If it's true that Barack Obama couldn't get into college without a boost from affirmative action, then the fact that he later went on to become President of the United States of America would surely go to show that affirmative action is a good idea! The concern that super-talented people were getting locked out of opportunities is exactly the sort of thing affirmative action is supposed to resolve.

As it happens, I oppose race-based affirmative action, despite the fact that it may have worked out quite well in the case of Barack Obama. The country where he grew up wouldn't have elected him president. Times change. The notion of advantaged people like Sasha and Malia Obama benefiting from racial preferences is a much better argument against the policy than the experience of their father.

But there are better arguments still.

Contra Kaus, "the biggest problem with race preferences" is that ours is an increasingly multi-racial, multi-ethnic country, and it is going to get increasingly unhealthy for institutions to define their own preferred racial mix. Among other things, doing so inevitably pits various out-groups against one another -- that's what happens in zero sum games, and it isn't as though the U.S. is immune to suspicions and resentments developing among minority groups in economic competition.

Class-based affirmative action would still disproportionately benefit historically disadvantaged racial minorities, and it would do so without the need to rethink and re-debate the appropriate racial diversity mix every few years. In fact, there would be a built-in fairness corrective: The more a racial group emerged from the American underclass, the less its members would receive special benefits.

It is perfectly rational that principled opponents of affirmative action do not desire to frame the issue around the experience of Barack Obama. He is a terrible poster child for almost every coherent argument they typically make. That's why we'll know, if Obama and affirmative action emerge as a big issue, that his ideological opponents are cynically stoking the racial anxieties of Americans, whether to win votes from folks antagonistic to our first black president, or merely because media attention is guaranteed to any candidate inclined to raise racially fraught subjects in a presidential campaign.

Kaus concludes by suggesting that no one would doubt Obama's bona fides if he were performing better in the White House. Does that make sense? Voters strongly opposed to affirmative action tend to also be deeply skeptical that "deserved" Ivy League educations lead to excelling in office. And GOP partisans can hardly conclude 8 years of George W. Bush by lamenting that the other team's president is suspect because he benefited from help getting into a good school!

It's that kind of double standard that fuels the dismay some black liberals are feeling right now. "In professional life," Adam Serwer wrote yesterday, "black people are often subject to random, arbitrary standards on the basis of race, and it's profoundly disheartening to watch this happen to the first black person to become president of the United States, because it implies that there's really no end to it, regardless of one's personal talent or the heights one manages to achieve."

Here is a similar point put more emotionally:

GOP candidates should not raise this issue, both because it has no intellectual merit, and because in the longer term, it's folly to be the party that elicits the sorts of reactions seen above.

Image credit: Molly Riley

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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