I'm a pretty big fan of Jon Chait, and in principle, I agree that Obama should embrace class-based Affirmative Action, but I find some of the reasoning behind this disturbing:

Third, the politics are phenomenal for him. He needs to try to regain his "post-racial image" that took such a beating in the primary. When you read interviews with whites who fear Obama, they often express a fear that Obama is only going to look out for his fellow African-Americans. What better way to show this isn't true?

But Chait doesn't ask why this is true. Maybe it's because I'm, you know, black, but there is nothing more irritating about the heat Affirmative Action generates, as compared to its actual effect on white people. From a black perspective, the greatest engine of our middle class are Historically Black Colleges and Universities which still generate half of all black college degrees in this country, 50 percent of all black school teachers, and 70 percent of all black doctors and physicians. This is why I've always been kind of "meh" about Affirmative Action myself. On the other hand, I'd love to see some stats on how many white folks will ever be affected by Affirmative Action in any way. I know that this is politics and Obama is a politician, but a tacit acceptance of irrational racial fear, is dangerous and short-sighted.

I have a radical theory: If  you never address white paranoia, class-based Affirmative Action is doomed. What Chait isn't seeing (and I submit this with much respect, because I am a fan) is that racism poisons everything. The War on Poverty programs were also class-based, but that didn't stop white racists from demonizing these programs a handouts to Negroes. Welfare supported more white people than black, but that didn't stop people from turning poor black women into welfare queens. The theory of class-based Affirmative Action as "great politics" rest on a foundation which black folks have always found wanting--the ability of crucial swaths of white people to not cut off their nose to spite their face. But, in regards to race, this country entire history is based on white people cutting off their nose to spite their face.

As policy, class-based Affirmative Action is great. As politics it is a nasty short-cut which seeks to avoid a very difficult, and politically costly discussion: Of all the great forces affecting the daily lives of white people, why do so many believe that Affirmative Action is somehow crucial? Given this country history and treatment of black people why does AA bother so many whites? Is it because it's poorly constructed policy? Or is it something else. You know what I think kids.

MORE: Commenter Riise offers an interesting critique:

"Of all the great forces affecting the daily lives of white people, why do so many believe that Affirmative Action is somehow crucial?"

Eh, I dunno about this sentence. I support affirmative action, but I understand and am slightly sympathetic to arguments against it. The idea that "most white people aren't affected" is a spurious one, and a slightly irrelevant one. First of all, do you have any backup for that? I mean, every white person who applies to college is affected by it. Most white people applying for a job are affected by it. Every white person running a business are affected by it...That's a lot of white people. Again, I support the policy, because I think that the minorities it helps are affected by a whole range of other factors that make it harder, but I think to say most white people aren't affected by the policy is wrong. It may be only at certain times in one's life, but they are important times (college application, job interview, etc.)

Also, even if a white guy isn't affected by it, that's kind of beside the point. It's a policy you can either support or oppose. There's probably a million policy questions that don't really affect YOU (or maybe only on the periphery) , like gay marriage or extended tours of duty in Iraq or abortion rights, that you would get majorly riled up about. And rightly so. Again, not necessarily agreeing with the sentiment of AA-opposition, but why should they not be worked up about something they oppose?

It's true that I have no backup for the claim that "most white people aren't affected" by Affirmative Action--which is why I don't make that claim anywhere in the original post. Even the sentence the reader cites is much more nuanced than that (If I may compliment myself). What I asked was "Of all the great forces affecting the daily lives of white people, why do so many believe that Affirmative Action is somehow crucial?" Clearly that question rests on the idea that there are other forces that have a greater impact on the lives of whites  but even that isn't the same as saying "most white people aren't affected."

It's true that Affirmative Action will affect you if your white and apply to college, depending on where you live. In fact Affirmative Action has effectively been outlawed in almost a third of the country (Michigan, Texas, Florida, California). Furthermore, it's spurious, on its face, to say that Affirmative Action affects every job--or even most jobs--people apply for. I highly doubt it has any serious affect on, say, entry level jobs at Wal-Mart, which last time I checked was the largest employer in the country. But agricultural policy, for instance, comes with no such caveats. It affects everyone, everywhere who consumes food. Yet the words "Farm Bill" or "Agricbusiness" simply don't ring with same emotion as "Affirmative Action."

All of that said, I think it's pretty clear in the post that I am--at best--lukewarm toward race-based Affirmative Action, and thus very sympathetic to the policy arguments against it. And the commenter is correct, you can oppose it even if it has no effect on you. But that post isn't a defense of Affirmative Action. It's an argument over whether class-based Affirmative Action will fair any better. One point I'd make--class-based Affirmative Action would still disproportionately aid blacks more than any other group, save Latinos. As I said before, we tried the stealth apporach once before--it was called the War On Poverty. There was nothing race-based about it. How'd that work out?

MORE: In the interest of equal time. Here is Riise's well-considered response. We aren't in total agreement, but I think he makes some excellent points:

"It's true that I have no backup for the claim that "most white people aren't affected" by Affirmative Action--which is why I don't make that claim anywhere in the original post."

Acknowledged. Not sure why I thought I saw that sentence, so what I was responding to was certainly a more extreme position than the one you staked out, at the very least. Apologies for the misread.

But moving on to your substantive critique...

"But agricultural policy, for instance, comes with no such caveats. It affects everyone, everywhere who consumes food. Yet the words "Farm Bill" or "Agricbusiness" simply don't ring with same emotion as "Affirmative Action.""

In some sense, yeah. But again, you could make the exact same argument about abortion. Many more people will be affected by agricultural policy than abortion law, but people get more worked up about Roe v. Wade and rightly so. It's because the issues at hand are basic of issues of life and death, freedom of choice, equality, etc. Likewise, affirmative action is viewed by many (on both sides) as an issue of racial and social equality. Why shouldn't these issues attract more attention than the wonky details of agricultural policy? There's simply more hanging in the balance on issues like aff. action or abortion or gay marriage than on other, less popular issues, even if the less popular ones "affect" more people. Even if a white guy doesn't encounter affirmative action on a daily basis, the way in which he encounters it (e.g. failing to get a job because he's white) would tend to rile him up, and it's easy to see why.





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