Obama, Race, and Affirmative Action

Will the Obama presidency be "conservative" on issues of race?


In the first week after Barack Obama's inauguration, his administration is already dealing with issues and controversies that have nothing to do with race. Still, the cultural significance of a black man becoming President of the United States cannot be overstated, given the pain and the shame of this country's racial history. Even conservative Republicans such as National Review's Jonah Goldberg warn that conservatives who fail to appreciate the greatness of this event risk being hopelessly marginalized. Of course, one oft-overlooked irony is that on racial issues, the Obama presidency may boost a position commonly labeled conservative.

In recent years, affirmative action in the form of institutionalized race-, gender-, and ethnicity-based preferences in college admissions and employment has been the subject of intense debate. Defenders of such programs maintain that they are needed to counteract the effects of discrimination and other subtle barriers. Critics, including African-American conservatives such as writer Shelby Steele and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, argue that preferences have the pernicious effect of deepening racial divisions and stigmatizing the very people they are intended to help.

The movement against race preferences has led to successful voter initiatives banning such practices in the public sector in California, Washington, Michigan, and most recently Nebraska. The backlash from the traditional civil rights establishment and from many liberals has been ferocious. In a 1999 speech, Vice President Al Gore blasted advocates of "colorblind" policies who "use their 'color-blind' the way duck hunters use their duck blind—they hide behind it and hope the ducks won't figure out what they're up to." Last November, a ballot measure prohibiting differential treatment by race or ethnicity in government institutions lost narrowly in Colorado after a campaign that relied heavily on smear tactics, such as trumpeting the Ku Klux Klan's endorsement of the initiative.

Shortly before the inauguration, Ward Connerly, the African-American businessman who has led the drive to ban preferences, spoke at a Washington, D.C. conference of the right-leaning National Association of Scholars. Connerly, a Republican who has found himself labeled an Uncle Tom and worse, began by saying, "We are here in the nation's capital a few days before an event that will demonstrate something most of us in this room have always believed: that America is a fair country and that the colorblind vision works." He noted that he did not vote for Obama, but believed that he deserved to win and that his election was a step forward toward "not just getting beyond racial preferences but getting beyond race."

This hopeful outlook was echoed at the conference by another outspoken critic of preferences: author, scholar, and U.S. Civil Rights Commission member Abigail Thernstrom, who called Obama's election "a racial conversation-changer." That the leader of the free world is now an African-American man, Thernstrom said, must make it easier and more attractive to move past race consciousness and harder to justify preferences with arguments about the intractability of racism. "The younger generation is coming of age in a racially altered world," Thernstrom said; eventually, campus politics will have to catch up.

Are Connerly and Thernstrom too optimistic? A friend of mine who is in a Ph.D. program at a large state university believes it will take at least a generation for the academy to get over its racism fetish. In her view, many academics are far too invested in the idea of deeply entrenched American racism to be swayed by Obama's election; they may even dismiss it as irrelevant because Obama has a white mother and did not grow up in a ghetto. And activists and politicians are no less likely than academics to cling to their dogmas.

Indeed, a small controversy erupted last week when the benediction given at Obama's inauguration by the noted civil rights leader, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, seemed to stress enduring racism: "Lord…we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right."

Some conservatives took offense at the implication that blacks were still "asked to get back" and whites were still refusing to do right by minorities. Yes, it is disappointing that the benediction at the inauguration of our first African-American president sounded a note that would have been forward-looking fifty years ago. But, to put things in perspective, the Rev. Lowery is an 87-year-old veteran of the civil rights struggle. Says Thernstrom, "The Jim Crow South is still the world he lives in."

It remains to be seen what kind of leadership Obama himself will provide on potentially divisive racial issues. During his campaign, he came out against the ballot measures to outlaw preferences—but also suggested that affirmative action should focus on economic disadvantage rather than race.

Undoubtedly, quite a few people—most of whom do not have the excuse of the Rev. Lowery's age and experience—will insist that invidious racism remains ever-present and race-based preference is the only way to combat it. But perhaps such claims will find increasingly less receptive audiences in an age when the daughter of a white factory worker seeking admission to a top college may find herself competing against the daughter of a black President of the United States.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.com.