What Should Obama Do on Affirmative Action?

Richard Kahlenberg, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 21, 2011

President Obama, facing high unemployment and a sluggish economy, may soon encounter a new obstacle in his quest for re-election: the re-emergence of affirmative action in higher education as a political issue. The odds seem increasingly likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up a suit against the University of Texas at Austin, re-introducing the issue of racial preferences that has been largely dormant since the 2003 Supreme Court Grutter decision affirming the use of race in admissions.

The tricky politics of affirmative action for Obama is an important feature of two new books, Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America by Desmond S. King of Oxford and Rogers M. Smith of the University of Pennsylvania (a volume I reviewed this week in The New Republic); and The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, a trenchant analysis by Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy.

Obama has thus far been able to dodge affirmative action in part because he’s been fortunate that his opponents have not exploited the issue. As Kennedy writes: “For reasons that are unclear, John McCain refused to pull out all of the racial stops at his disposal in his fight with Obama…McCain could have done more to create a problem for Obama by calling attention to their differences over the volatile issue of racial affirmative action,” but McCain “never seriously broached the matter; remarkably, in three nationally televised presidential debates, the issue of affirmative action never surfaced.”

Obama has sent mixed signals on the issue, giving both supporters and opponents reasons to be hopeful. He has, says Kennedy, been “studiously ambiguous,” on affirmative action, giving “fragmentary and elusive” remarks. In a little noticed move, the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief in the lower courts supporting racial affirmative-action policies at the University of Texas; and yet most of Obama’s rhetoric has been color blind, emphasizing his unwillingness to support race-specific programs for blacks, favoring instead class-based policies that will disproportionately benefit people of color. {snip}

For Obama, the University of Texas case poses enormous dangers. On the one hand, Obama faces a lingering skepticism among some white voters. {snip}

Of course, Obama could make a strong argument that all students–including whites–benefit when universities are racially diverse, but it’s not clear that this is how Americans will view the issue. {snip} The even starker issue of whether universities should consciously prefer applicants of one race over another is always a difficult political sell; in tough economic times, when Americans feel less generous, the case is all the more difficult.

At the same time, there are large dangers for Obama in opposing affirmative action outright, as Kennedy suggests. {snip} Kennedy believes that affirmative action is a “litmus test” issue for many blacks and that moving away from racial affirmative action would be seen “as betrayal.”

If the Supreme Court takes the Texas case, what should Obama do? On both the merits and the politics, one can make a strong case that the president needs to get ahead of the curve, seize the populist moment in American politics, and come out for a policy of affirmative action that benefits economically disadvantaged students of all races.

Such a move, Kennedy rightly suggests, would engender an outcry from middle and upper-middle class African Americans who now benefit disproportionately from racial preference in college admissions. But in response, Obama could make clear to his most loyal supporters that his hand is being forced. The Roberts court is likely to curtail racial preferences no matter what Obama does, so why not avoid the political hit associated with a full-throated defense of racial preferences and instead begin to make the case for a new kind of affirmative action that can be shaped so as to continue to promote both economic and racial justice?

{snip}

Americans would likely support Obama on this shift; polls find that while they oppose racial preferences by 2:1 they support income-based preferences by the same margin. {snip}

{snip} If the High Court agrees to hear the Texas case, Obama will have to move beyond his strategy of avoidance. He should seize the opportunity to strike a blow for low-income and working-class students of all races.

Topics:

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.
  • chuck

    I am not in favor of AA because incompetence becomes the rules of the day in the positions these people fill. Let the qualified have those jobs requiring skill, intelligence and the spark of imagination. There are many “drone” jobs for black people that fit the mentality they have. AA is bad for America.

  • Hirsch

    Obama explicity stated more than a decade ago that he had been a beneficiary of affirmative action in college admissions, and probably in his ascension to the Harvard Law Review.

    “Personnel is Policy” as they say. Obama does not like confrontations, so he lets his activist appointments (Kagan, Van Jones, Holder, Sotomayor) do the kind of heavy-lifting and race baiting that would make Al Sharpton blush.

  • white is right, black is whack

    Outlaw affirmative action, repeal the Civil Rights ‘anti-discrimation laws’ and let the private sector be allowed to hire and do business with who they wish to. Why is this such a ‘hateful’ and ‘extreme’ idea to let people and organizations be free to associate with people they wish to.

  • T

    The o’bama is our first “affirmative action” president . . .

  • Anonymous

    What is the caption of the case(e.g.”Smith v. Jones”)? And docket number? In what court?

  • Anonymous

    “The even starker issue of whether universities should consciously prefer applicants of one race over another is always a difficult political sell; in tough economic times, when Americans feel less generous, the case is all the more difficult”.

    The case is all the more difficult? whether they should or not? Difficult sell? We’ve had affirmative action on campus for over 40 years especially for those who are candidates to teach. Most whites oppose it but those in power severely browbeat down anyone who might utter an objection. Those who object to it are punished.

  • Sincerely Concerned

    This sounds like someone trying to make lemonade from lemons, as it were. It doesn’t sound like a good idea to continue rewarding low economic status with college educations. If one is supposedly poor but smart enough, one has MANY different ways of being accepted into universities, and AA shouldn’t be one of them.

    Obama has indeed, contrary to the wording in a few of the paragraphs, shown racial preferences in his words and actions. They are sometimes thinly veiled and sometimes blatant.

    If only we could wipe the slate clean and just say, hey, those who score well enough are in and those who don’t are out.

  • Daniel Williams

    “Of course, Obama could make a strong argument that all students—including whites—benefit when universities are racially diverse…”

    I love how the author doesn’t even bother trying to explain how or why this might be the case, like these mysterious benefits can deduced from first principles.

  • Anonymous

    So much nonsense in so few paragraphs. So much that I can’t deal with it fully — but here’s a modest down-payment on what’s wrong with this article:

    McCain “never seriously broached the matter; remarkably, in three nationally televised presidential debates, the issue of affirmative action never surfaced.”

    Not really that “remarkable” when one factors in that McCain has never been much more than a liberal Democrat who somehow got signed up as a Republican.

    and yet most of Obama’s rhetoric has been color blind, emphasizing his unwillingness to support race-specific programs for blacks, favoring instead class-based policies that will disproportionately benefit people of color.

    Which amounts to exactly the same thing: extra goodies for blacks. As my late, lamented white daddy used to say, “I don’t care HOW thin you slice it, it’s STILL baloney!”

    one can make a strong case that the president needs to get ahead of the curve, seize the populist moment in American politics, and come out for a policy of affirmative action that benefits economically disadvantaged students of all races.

    One can NOT make a strong case for that, as affirmative action has NO benefits for whites. NONE. We’re merely the suckers expected to foot the bill for that which benefits others.

    Such a move, Kennedy rightly suggests, would engender an outcry from middle and upper-middle class African Americans who now benefit disproportionately from racial preference in college admissions

    African Americans are only 13% of the pop’n. Middle and upper-middle class African Americans — the black bourgeoisie, such as it is — are at best 20% of black America, meaning around 2% of voters. Strictly by the numbers, it makes no sense for ANY politician to fret over a demographic of 2%. It only goes to show how much blacks — insignificant in both number and merit — are catered to in Black Run America, that an article of such triviality and foolishness could even be published.

  • E Pluribus Pluribus

    “What Should Obama Do on Affirmative Action if he Wants to be Re-elected?” is a more appropriate title for the Kahlenberg piece.

    Kahlenberg is academic advocate of forced busing for economic diversity — while making sure his own child avoids the diversity he hopes to foist on other people’s children. His daughter attended a heavily white (and secondarily Asian public school) in Montgomery County, Maryland, Walt Whitman High School: 76% white, 4.5% African American, 7% Hispanic, and 12.5 Asian American . . . the description of the school population says that 80% of the parents are college graduates, mainly professional and managerial. The school is loaded with National Merit Scholars.

    Diversity for thee, but not me seems then to be Kahlenberg’s motto. Thus supporting “socioeconomic diversity” in college admissions — translation: discrimination against better qualifed whites — is in keeping with the spirit of Kahlenerg’s diversity-for-thee-but-not-for-agenda for schools.

    Morever, affirmative action based on economic status sounds innocent enough. Its ant-white core might be hidden from enough white voters to re-elect Obama — in the same way busing based on economic status sounds much less alarming than racial balance busing, the method federal judges used to empty cities of their white populations during the 70s and 80s.

    SOURCE for Walt Whitman School stats:

    http://tinyurl.com/79quvcd

  • SS

    People who support Economic Affirmative Action do indeed support non-white Racial Preferences and this is fact.

  • Anonymous

    It will make no difference. The Supreme Court will vote in support of Affirmative Action.

  • jim8230

    “Of course, Obama could make a strong argument that all students—including whites—benefit when universities are racially diverse, but it’s not clear that this is how Americans will view the issue.”

    There’s that statement of fact again regarding how Whites benefit from racial diversity…..When is someone going to give us the “facts” as to just what those benefits are? I’m waiting.

  • Anonymous

    And this is why when the core of a party is diversity, it begins to fall apart because they can’t form a cohesion block on a issue. However eventually they will get what they want as the party starts to dissolve on racial rounds and we will see Affirmative action become mandatory.

    The real fun begins once people get a taste of real diversity and experts are baffled to the “rise of racism.”

    The real question is how bad will it need to get to allow a permanent back lash that sets things in motion?

  • Pandemonium

    Let’s be clear; affirmative action is discrimination pure and simple. Sugar coat it as you will, it is nothing more than discrimination and usually against White males. Whites, in general, are discriminated against by it, but mostly White males.

    The discriminatory nature of AA is bad enough, but less apparent is the corrosive effect it has in the workplace. Whites know full well that they are not being treated fairly and this knowledge kindles resentment, resentment toward co-workers and toward employers. Those “benefiting” from this discrimination know full well that they are where they are by virtue of a hefty helping hand from uncle sugar and not from their own efforts. All others know this as well. Thus the “benefit” from AA is diluted.

    Finally, the erosion of confidence in our institutions when we contemplate that many players “came up through a system of AA” is incalculable.

    Once again, we see in full splendor, the debacle brought to us by government attempting to socially engineer the “perfect society”.

    The only solution is a meritocracy as was so eloquently proffered by one Thomas Jefferson.

    Stop the madness!!

  • Anonymous

    BHO’s views on affirmative action may only SEEM to be ambiguous. Guaranteed he’s as much a supporter of racial preferences as most AmRen readers are against it. As for John McCain…that raging moderate was the WORST possible candidate the GOP could muster. I firmly believe the fix was in to get Obama elected. Why, I don’t know.

  • Auntie Em

    I don’t remember a time when race relationships have been more strained. And that includes my experience during the Sixties.

    Singling people out according to the color of their skin has proved to be a continuing divisive factor in the United States.

    And, given my understanding of human nature, will continue for as long as people are allowed free thought and speech.

    It’s not something that can be fixed with money, legislation or threat. Thoughtful people make their decisions individually according to personal experience and over a period of time.

    Fair is fair, regardless of skin color.

  • Anonymous

    I’m waiting for the day when racial IQ disparity is introduced as a fact in one of these cases. I know that many cases rely on finding of disparate impact. Blacks do badly on this test, therefore the test is unacceptable because it has a disparate impact on blacks. Etc. When is someone going to bring up the fact that blacks do badly because they have low IQ and it’s genetic. Same applies for affirmative action. No amount of AA is ever going to make blacks equal because the problem is genetic. I’m ready for a court to review that argument! But maybe they should wait a little bit longer until they have got a highly predictive set of genetic markers, in addition to the overwhelming statistical evidence we have today.

  • rockman

    affirmative action is the result of white people accepting the roll of whipped puppy cowering in the corner. It is a rip off and a swindle allowing inferior students to replace qualified white students. It is an admission that the minority students cannot compete in the real world. it is time to end this federal screw job of the white race.

  • elitist

    A meritocracy favors some groups over others – and places blacks at the very bottom of society.

    Race quotas favoring blacks elevates individuals far beyond their level of competency, while discriminating against more competent whites.

    That is the dilemma, and no solution can avoid facing these realities.

    A glance at the listing of Harvard faculty is instructive: there are few tenured black faculty at Harvard – except in less competitive areas like sociology and education (none in humanities or the physical sciences, for example).

    Blacks continued to complain that Harvard has plenty of black students, but very few black professors.

    http://goo.gl/ycFCA

    Through sleight-of-hand and hypocrisy, institutions like Harvard pander to blacks, while at the same time for the most part excluding unqualified blacks from positions where they can do significant damage.

    The psychology of blacks in this regard is very interesting:

    instead of castigating themselves for failing to live up to their own expectations, they blame institutions like Harvard for its defective hiring practices.

    Obviously, they know full well that Harvard spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year in the futile search for qualified black faculty, but draws the line at appointing total incompetence to professorships.

    They are not ashamed of their inadequacies, they simply blame whites for failing to recognize their obvious intellectual brilliance.

    Unfortunately, the choices are stark:

    continued this balancing act, with its incredibly elaborate Kabuki theater of hypocrisy, dissembling, compromise, and expensive concessions;

    Separate the races;

    Eliminate race preferences and therefore assign blacks an inferior position in society;

    Establish full race preferences without the safety valve of excluding blacks from fields like medicine, engineering, aviation, etc., thereby causing society to collapse.

    I suspect we will continue with the first option, because blacks don’t really want the society which maintains their existence as the most privileged African community on earth to collapse.

    Institutions like Harvard should probably appoint figurehead blacks to positions in law and literature, etc., with great brouhaha, and claim to be making progress toward parity while essentially excluding incompetent blacks from areas where they can do that damage.

    It would help us, they were at least a tiny handful of black geniuses in areas like engineering, medicine, and physics.

    Are there any?

  • ATBOTL

    Republicans and conservatives has been silent on AA for many years now. I remember it was a big issue in the 80’s.

  • Overseas

    “Of course, Obama could make a strong argument that all students—including whites—benefit when universities are racially diverse”

    Strong argument? How exactly do I benefit? By being more at risk for violent crime? How will my daughters benefit? By being more at risk for rape? No sane human being would see these as benefits. The author is clearly leading from the left with absolutely no consideration for reality.

  • Anonymous

    The essential objection to Affirmative Action is that it is predicated upon the assumption that a low incidence of success for certain groups arises from denied opportunities–rather than from inherent limitations rooted in the variations of human evolution. Simply allowing mentally limited persons to occupy certain job roles above their limitations would not necessarily be objectionable. Mildly retarded adults holding jobs like janitor, etc, often need to be aided by normals coming in contact with them. Giving this charitable aid (“As ye do unto the least of those among us…”), they function OK and anyone mean spirited enough to object to their opportunity is apt to be heavily criticized by most of us.

  • Anonymous

    15-Pandemonium wrote;

    “Those “benefiting” from this discrimination know full well that they are where they are by virtue of a hefty helping hand from (government) and not from their own efforts. All others know this as well.”

    Sorry, but you are wrong. Those benefiting from affirmative action, in many cases, don’t realize or admit that they got to where they are by virtue of affirmative action. Far too many of them are delusional in that respect. They actually believe they got where they are on their own merits and will never accept otherwise. They will only agree that they are not being promoted because of discrimination……until they themselves get promoted. This is especially obvious in government.

    And, whatever you do, never be anyone who attacks, directly or indirectly, their self-concept of their own capabilities and authority. They will eat you alive. They don’t get mad, they get even. That is why smart managers (of any race and gender) are afraid of crossing blacks (especially black females) in the workplace. They get away with it with impunity because, after all, blacks in the workplace are highly competent and don’t anyone ever question that competency.

    Affirmative action has been the most destructive device this country has ever experienced. It has made testing and high standards, whether academic or hiring, a joke. Standards and testing have been so dumbed-down (or eliminated altogether) to meet AA hiring quotas, that even though 96% of white test takers meet the standards, it is the only way that an acceptable percentage of blacks can reach a passing score. Every aspect of the academic and professional life in this country that we depend on for our future has been eaten away in order to lower standards to allow blacks to meet them. AA has dragged both us and our society to the lowest common denominator.

    Let’s face it. AA is, and will always be, for blacks. AA may hire blacks or get them in school, but it is primarily used to exploit, manipulate and control them while enriching racial pimps and extortionists. Other races have been thrown into the pot simply as EEO camouflage. Fortunately, except for Hispanics, other races have not been drawn down by AA but are allowed to abuse it to their advantage. If AA (along with the welfare and everything else it entails) were to disappear tomorrow, most Hispanics would rise to the occasion. When a consistent high standard is set, and ALL people know it will not be lowered, then people will raise themselves to meet the standards. If they can’t (or don’t want to) then we don’t need them in our society, in our schools, in our businesses or in our governments at any level.

    AA doesn’t work in the real world. Ever wonder why, even after 50 years of AA, you don’t see more blacks in fighter airplane or helicopter cockpits (or even commercial airliner cockpits), or see more Army Special Forces and Rangers or Navy SEALS that are black? Why aren’t there far more black Secret Service or FBI agents, or engineers or chemical engineers or neurosurgeons or rocket scientists or meteorologists or mathematicians or Foreign Service Officers…..? Because, you can’t fake these jobs. 2+2 will always equal 4; mistakes in surgery, super computer programming, chemical formulas, bridge designs, shooting accuracy or poor protective operations maim or kill people; and diplomatic interactions with foreign representatives who are the best minds their countries have to offer don’t work when US diplomats are less capable or speak English with more errors and a worse accent than the foreigners with whom they negotiate.

    Many Blacks will rise to the occasion, although years of dumbing down due to AA will be hard (but not impossible) for them to overcome. Establishing credibility through accomplishment and competency put forward by Booker T. Washington for blacks so many years ago, might become a reality. The poverty pimps will fight it every step of the way.

  • Ed

    “Of course, Obama could make a strong argument that all students—including whites—benefit when universities are racially diverse, but it’s not clear that this is how Americans will view the issue.”

    I was a victim of forced busing in the 70’s. Sorry but I never saw the benefits of a racially diverse school!

  • rjp

    Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

    http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/09/09-50822-CV0.wpd.pdf

    No. 11-345

    Title:

    Abigail Noel Fisher, Petitioner

    v.

    University of Texas at Austin, et al.

    Docketed: September 19, 2011

    Lower Ct: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

    Case Nos.: (09-50822)

    Decision Date: January 18, 2011

    Rehearing Denied: June 17, 2011

  • jewamongyou

    Obama should oppose AA. Blacks will vote for him no matter what, so he might as well ignore their wishes. It is whites who need to be convinced, so he should heed the wishes of whites.

    This being said, I tend to agree with anonymous #12, that the Supreme Court will support AA, unfortunately.

    http://www.jewamongyou.wordpress.com

  • john

    We’ve been at this AA nonsense for fully forty years, thus far without significant result. One would think that it’s time to admit defeat in raising performance levels of blacks in all endeavors, save athletics in which they’re deservedly overrepresented.

    This doesn’t mean blacks can’t be contributing members of this or any other society, as long as they’re subject to the same social and legal disciplines as all other citizens.

    But there are simply aren’t going to be large numbers of black engineers, black scientists, black MDs, black airline pilots, or blacks in any pursuits that require high intelligence. There will be some in these aforementioned occupations, to be sure, but they will never be represented proportionally with their overall numbers.

  • Question Diversity

    21 ATBOTL:

    And guess who bashed in the knees of any serious effort on the Republican side to end AA. Sounds like “Newt Gingrich.” A member of Congress, one of the famous ’94 Freshmen, Charles Canady, from Florida, tried over and over again, but Speaker Newt stopped him every time. He got so disgusted he left the House. He’s on the Florida Supreme Court, and is fact is currently its Chief Justice.

  • Pandemonium

    @ # 24:

    My thinking is that the reason so many blacks display such defensiveness in the workplace is precisely because they know why they are where they are.

    Throughout my career I have witnessed this and certainly don’t think “all” blacks know, but I strongly suspect that many of them are aware.

  • John Engelman

    Obama could make a strong argument that all students—including whites—benefit when universities are racially diverse, but it’s not clear that this is how Americans will view the issue.

    – Richard Kahlenberg, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 21, 2011

    ———–

    President Obama’s argument would be weak. It is clear how most Americans will view the issue.

  • on the lam from the Thought Police

    President Obama may be our first affirmative action president. He has not published his grades and aptitude test scores. Although he was on the Law Review at Harvard Law School he did not write any articles for it. While he taught at the University of Chicago Law School he neither published, nor did he perish.

  • WR the elder

    With two Obama appointees already on the Supreme Court I’m not at all optimistic about the outcome when the court takes on an affirmative action case. I believe it was Scalia who said, “The way to end discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” But most of his fellow Supreme Court judges are unlikely to share his common sense.