Fair Enough?

Jonathan Kaufman, Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2008

Stan Sheyn, a white student who attends community college in this working-class Detroit suburb, supports Barack Obama for president. But he has no time for what he calls “double standards and propagation of victim mentality.”

“The fact that a black man can run for the position of the President of the United States of America only corroborates that there is enough opportunity and equality for great things like that to happen,” he says. “And that there is no need to create special advantages for any demographic group.”

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Few issues have been as incendiary in the workplace and on college campuses as affirmative action—in large part because so many blacks and whites have been personally affected by affirmative action, in ways both good and bad.

Now, Sen. Obama’s rise is prompting some whites to ask—and some blacks to fear—the question: Does America still need affirmative action, given that an African-American has made it to the top of American politics?

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The issue of affirmative action is likely to dog Sen. Obama on the campaign trail as he seeks to win over white blue-collar voters in battleground states like Michigan. For many of these voters, affirmative action has been divisive since the 1970s. Ward Connerly, a prominent affirmative-action opponent, is seeking to place anti-affirmative action referendums on the ballot in Arizona, Nebraska and Colorado. Voters would be asked to ban “preferential treatment” of women and minorities in state university admissions, the filling of state-funded jobs and awarding of state contracts.

Favoring the Middle Class

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More than half of blacks—57%—say the country should make “every effort to improve the position of blacks and minorities, even if it means giving preferential treatment,” according to a poll conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan Washington think tank that studies social attitudes. Just 27% of whites agree with that view. The same poll shows that nearly half of whites—48%—believe the U.S. has “gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.” Far fewer African Americans—27%—agree.

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Sen. Obama’s success has also stirred an uncomfortable debate within the black community over who has reaped the gains of affirmative action. Some argue the policies skew toward middle-class blacks instead of poor blacks, and have favored too many individuals like Sen. Obama—people with a biracial background or the children of African and Caribbean immigrants, as opposed to blacks born in the U.S.

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Sen. Obama’s newfound prominence has also prompted some successful blacks to wonder whether his achievements, and theirs, mean affirmative action should be modified to help poor and working-class whites.

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Early Challenges

Affirmative action began in 1961, when President Kennedy issued an executive order declaring that federal contractors should “take affirmative action” to integrate their work forces.

The initiative broadened to include policies that favored women and minorities in hiring and promotion at work and in college admissions, the goal being to overcome past discrimination.

Many whites charged that this amounted to “reverse discrimination.” In the landmark Bakke case of 1978, the Supreme Court narrowed the definition of affirmative action, declaring unconstitutional the use of some rigid quota systems. But it upheld the principle of affirmative action.

In 2003, a more-conservative Supreme Court again upheld the principle of affirmative action, but narrowed the interpretation still further, adding in a majority opinion, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” Opponents of affirmative action recently filed another suit challenging affirmative action in Texas.

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Affirmative action policies have helped blacks gain access to large corporations and top universities, studies have shown, and the presence of blacks in these places has encouraged others to follow. The number of African Americans at the country’s top 50 colleges and universities has doubled in recent decades, according to Harry Holzer, a Georgetown University economist. Women have benefited, too, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, when they began breaking into traditionally male-dominated fields.

A Leg Up for Whites

Michigan’s Macomb County is home to many of the fabled “Reagan Democrats,” the conservative working-class whites who left the Democratic Party largely over social issues including race in the 1980s. Here, life has been changed by affirmative action and the rise of the black middle class. In the past five years, the African-American population has doubled to about 6% from about 3%, in part as blacks have left Detroit for safer suburbs with better schools.

Such changes make some whites here wonder why affirmative action is needed at all. “If blacks are living in the same houses that I am living in, and they can afford the same things I can afford, why shouldn’t I have the same breaks as they do?” says Tony Licata, a professional photographer in Macomb County who is white and says he is leaning toward voting for Sen. McCain.

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“I have been a supporter of affirmative action, but it needs to be refocused—other groups need to be included,” says Marceia Lugo, a divorced white mother of three whose mother and ex-husband have left Michigan to look for work. Ms. Lugo says she backed Sen. Clinton but will now vote for Sen. Obama. “I am not black, so I don’t know those issues. But I have been poor, and I have had to struggle, so I should get special treatment.”

Wooed by Elite Colleges

A half-hour drive from Warren lies Southfield, Mich., a leafy, integrated middle-class and upper-middle-class suburb that is a testament to the impact of affirmative action. {snip}

Many blacks here don’t want to lose the boost that they say affirmative action gives them. Stephen Kemp, a successful black funeral director in Southfield, sends his son to a $24,000-a-year private high school. His son, a junior, has been receiving letters from elite colleges wooing him to apply. “When they look at his application they see he is an African-American male—he has so much opportunity,” says Mr. Kemp, who himself attended the University of Michigan. “Brown called him yesterday.”

Mr. Kemp thinks it is fine that his son gets special attention, because diversity on campus benefits whites as well as blacks. “If you are getting a true education, that has to reflect all kinds of people,” he says.

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