What’s Next for Affirmative Action?

How Barack Obama's role as America's first black president could affect race-based preference programs

Tuesday’s election was a stunning triumph for the early 1960s notion of colorblindness: don’t discriminate against people of color—or in favor of them. The election of America’s first black president was a moving and long overdue affirmation of the civil rights movement’s enduring struggle for equal treatment. At the same time, the candidate never asked Americans to vote for him because he is black, saying instead that race is irrelevant. The election also saw the passage of an anti-affirmative action initiative in Nebraska, and the tight—and still contested—vote on a similar initiative in Colorado. Proponents of the two initiatives argue that they are consistent with the original colorblind vision of the civil rights movement. The resonance of the nondiscrimination principle at this time should serve as an important caution for Barack Obama as he ponders the minefields of race he will face as president.

As Gerald Early, a professor of African and African-American studies and American-culture studies at Washington University pointed out last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Americans have embraced black CEOs, authors, and diplomats—but for an African American to become the most powerful person on earth represents “the ultimate” advance for “a people who have endured a history of powerlessness.” And on Tuesday, Children’s Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman wrote in Politico, “This morning, as I stood in line to vote, I was moved by the realization that finally this is the day on which my fellow Americans are willing to do what Dr. King envisioned: vote for a President based on the content of his character rather than the color of his skin.”

Edelman’s language is consistent with Obama’s strikingly colorblind campaign. He eloquently rejected the idea of a black America or a white America in favor of the United States of America. When Obama spoke to the NAACP in July, he emphasized the kinds of common economic concerns one might expect to hear about from a candidate addressing the AFL-CIO. He made no mention of affirmative action and instead called for more cops on the street, an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the need to address poverty, whether people “live in Anacostia or Appalachia.” He spoke in the broad, coalition-building tradition of Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than in the narrow, race-focused vein of Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, or Al Sharpton. It’s important to recall that in King’s book, Why We Can’t Wait, he wrote of the need to address the legacy of racial discrimination, but proposed as a remedy a colorblind Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, not a Bill of Rights for Blacks.

On Tuesday, Nebraska voters supported the anti-affirmative action initiative on their state ballot by 58 to 42 percent. In doing so, they joined three blue states—California, Washington, and Michigan—which banned race-based preferences in previous years. In Colorado, voters supported Obama by a 53-46 margin but are at the moment deadlocked, 50-50 on an anti-affirmative action initiative, with 8 percent of precincts yet to report.

In the coming months, Americans will watch closely to see how America’s first black president governs on issues of race. His supporters are divided. As a recent Washington Post article noted, some black supporters see Obama’s election as “advancing the black community,” while some white volunteers are thrilled by the notion of “post-racial” politics. In liberal academic circles, where Obama has strong multiracial support, the notion of colorblind policies is considered naive, even reactionary. But the Obama crowds in South Carolina memorably chanted “race doesn’t matter” after his victory there in the Democratic primary.

Obama himself has sent mixed signals on the defining issue of affirmative action. On the one hand, he castigated John McCain for supporting an anti-affirmative action initiative during the campaign. On the other hand, when George Stephanopoulos asked Obama whether his own daughters deserve a preference in college admissions, Obama said no, because they “have had a pretty good deal,” and went on to say that special consideration should be provided to low-income students of all races.

During Obama’s presidential term, he will likely have to address the issue of affirmative action in college admissions head-on. In April, conservatives filed a federal lawsuit challenging racial preferences at the University of Texas at Austin. The suit, Fisher v. Texas, alleges that UT can achieve racial diversity through its plan to automatically admit students in the top 10 percent of their high school class, making the use of race unnecessary and unconstitutional. Whatever the lower courts decide, the U.S. Supreme Court may well take the case on appeal at some point during Obama’s first term. Five years ago, the Supreme Court affirmed the use of race in college admissions by a 5-4 vote, but since then conservative Justice Samuel Alito has replaced Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the swing vote in favor of racial preferences. The new conservative majority, which last year struck down racial integration plans in public schools in Seattle and Louisville, may wish to revisit affirmative action in higher education, forcing Obama to take a clear stand.

As America’s first black president, Obama will be uniquely constrained on race in one sense, and uniquely enabled in another. Obama’s most vulnerable moment during the campaign came when racially incendiary tapes of Rev. Jeremiah Wright surfaced. As Obama’s poll numbers sank, he responded with an eloquent and moving speech on race, in which he sought to make whites understand Wright’s rage, but also reassured them that he did not share it. According to numerous news accounts during the campaign, racist white voters have made an unsubstantiated assumption that because Obama is black, he would favor blacks over whites. Nothing would be more explosive than for Obama to take a strong stand in favor of racial preferences at the University of Texas.

Racial preferences have never been popular, and Obama’s election—rightly or wrongly—is likely to make even more people believe that affirmative action has outlasted its rationale. Just last week, a New York Times/CBS poll found that the proportion of people who say blacks “have an equal chance of getting ahead” rose to 64 percent, up from 46 percent in 1997. (The numbers have risen among both blacks and whites.)

On the other hand, as the first black president, Obama is uniquely positioned to help persuade civil rights leaders that it is time to resurrect King’s idea of affirmative action as a set of programs for low income Americans of all races. He could point to King’s political insight that only a class-based emphasis would forge a potent black- and working-class-white coalition for real social change. And in phasing out race-based preferences, Obama could simultaneously put real money into the enforcement of important anti-discrimination laws to protect against bias in education, housing, and employment, a part of the colorblind agenda that no president has fully funded.

In college admissions—the subject of the ongoing litigation—Obama could back a vigorous program of economic preferences that indirectly addresses our nation’s history of slavery and segregation and the ongoing reality of racial discrimination. According to a 2004 Century Foundation study by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, economic affirmative action—looking at the income, education and occupation of an applicant’s parents, and the level of poverty in her high school—will produce almost as much racial diversity as current race-based affirmative action: the result would be 10 percent black and Hispanic representation at the most selective colleges and universities compared with 12 percent currently. But counting other economic factors—such as wealth (net worth)—should boost racial diversity further. Wealth represents the accumulation of income over time and thereby more closely reflects the legacy of past discrimination. Likewise, because homes represent the biggest source of family wealth for most Americans, giving low wealth students a preference will also capture ongoing racial discrimination in the housing market.

A carefully designed economic affirmative action program could do what King sought to do: address the legacy of discrimination while honoring the nondiscrimination principle; it could be colorblind without being blind to history. The decision of millions of American voters to disregard race in the presidential election is rightly seen as an enormous advance in our politics. Many voters may expect President Obama’s policies to embrace the same principle.