No Democratic candidate for president has ever come so close to calling for an end to the era of identity-based affirmative action as has Barack Obama.
Since 2004, the first black major party nominee from either party has been offering comments suggesting that economic status should match or even trump race and gender as a criteria for who should benefit from the program—though he’s yet to propose a specific policy, let alone one that matches his rhetoric.
After four decades of affirmative action, Obama’s historic candidacy itself is seen by some as proof that such programs are no longer needed.
“A lot of non-black people will say that the election of Barack Obama is now proof we don’t need affirmative action,” said Democratic House Majority Whip James Clyburn, who is concerned by the notion. Clyburn added that in an Obama administration he’d like to head up an affirmative-action task force that would consider class to some degree but maintain the current emphasis on race and gender.
It’s not clear if a President Obama would be interested in such a task force—or, for that matter, if or how he’d change affirmative action, since at different times he’s offered seemingly contradictory opinions on the subject, as has John McCain.
In recent weeks, affirmative action, a hot issue in previous elections, has returned to the presidential political debate, owing to comments by Obama and McCain and ballot initiatives proposing to end racial, ethnic and gender preferences in all taxpayer-funded programs—from university admissions to government contracts—in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska.
On the one hand, Obama opposes the current state ballot measures (McCain supports them), thus offering at least de facto support for the current policy that gives preference to minorities and women and is rooted in the programs begun by President Kennedy and later significantly expanded by President Nixon.
On the other hand, Obama’s said that his two daughters should not be given preferential treatment, owing to their relatively privileged upbringing, and has called for government to “craft” a policy “in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren't getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more.”
Such hints of a possible new policy focus are a relatively recent development from Obama, who once said that he had “undoubtedly benefited from affirmative action” in his own academic career, though he didn’t specify at what institution he had so benefited. Friends have since recalled him saying that he did not list his race on his Harvard Law application, though the candidate has said only that "I have no way of knowing whether I was a beneficiary of affirmative action either in my admission to Harvard or my initial election to the Review. If I was, then I certainly am not ashamed of the fact, for I would argue that affirmative action is important precisely because those who benefit typically rise to the challenge when given an opportunity.”
While as a presidential candidate he tends to draw attention to the diversity of the people he met as a community organizer after graduating from Harvard, in his 1995 memoir “Dreams From My Father: A story of race and inheritance,” Obama stresses that he settled in Chicago with the idea of "organizing black folks at the grass roots for change."
As a state senator representing the 13 district on the South Side of Chicago, he deemed traditional, race-oriented affirmative action “absolutely necessary,” and pushed hard for programs that mandated racial- and gender-based hiring preferences.
In the 2004 Democratic Convention keynote speech that catapulted him onto the national stage, he began publicly offering a broader view on race, famously saying, "There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America-there's the United States of America."
In his 2006 tome, “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on reclaiming the American Dream”—the difference in tone is nicely captured in the subtitle’s repurposing of the word “dream”— he wrote, “An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific programs isn’t just good policy: It’s also good politics.”
If Obama does propose a new preferences program based on class, not race, poll numbers suggest it would indeed be “good politics.” A Rasmussen poll published last week found that 58 percent of Americans opposed government programs that offered “special treatment to women and minorities,” compared to 26 percent who support such a policy.
Though hardly a top issue for most voters, a majority of Americans believe a candidate’s “position on affirmative action programs is important in determining how they will vote,” according to Rasmussen.
An analysis of surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in recent years shows that a majority of whites are of two minds about affirmative action, with most supporting the idea of government programs that make “special efforts” to “make up for past discrimination” and yet most opposing programs that directly favor minorities and women.
When race and gender are removed from the equation, support increases dramatically, with nearly nine of ten whites in a 2005 Pew poll reporting support for a policy that would help Americans from “low-income brackets” to “get ahead.”
While a new, class-based affirmative action would still largely aid those minorities, including blacks, that are over-represented amongst the poor and working class—in fact, officials in California have attempted to use income as a proxy for race-based preferences after voters disallowed their use in a referenda—Obama has yet to offer any specific plan of his own.
“Obama is missing an enormous opportunity because a lot of those who are skeptical [of him] could close escrow on him if he could give some very visible explanation of his non-raciality,” said Ward Connerly, the former University of California regent who is funding the three anti-affirmative action measures on state ballots this year, and who has previously pursued such measures successfully in California, Washington and Michigan.
Connerly believes such a stance would lose Obama only a small part of his black support while allowing him to “make far larger gains” among whites.
Obama, though, has kept his policy views close to his vest while maintaining his opposition to Connerly, who has fared far better at the ballot box than in the legislative hall.
Obama told a convention of minority journalists in Chicago last month that “I am disappointed that John McCain flipped and changed his position. I think in the past he had been opposed to these kinds of Ward Connerly referenda or initiatives as divisive. And I think he’s right.”
In 1998 McCain did characterize a similar proposed anti-affirmative action measure in Arizona as “divisive,” though that proposal never made it on to the ballot. Over the years however, McCain has generally opposed affirmative action programs, and called for a new, economic-based system to replace the current race- and gender-based one.
While ballot initiatives appear to have increased turnout in non-presidential years, “there is precious little evidence that these ballot initiatives drive up turnout in the presidential election,” notes Kenneth Bickers, who directs the political science department at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
For this reason Bickers doesn’t expect the ballot initiatives there to directly impact who wins Colorado, which many expect to be a key swing state this fall.
"I don’t think he is missing an opportunity on affirmative action," said Clyburn. “Affirmative action ought never to be used on simply color," he continued. Rather, it is needed " when the color of one’s skin puts one in a position of being treated unequally."
Bickers, though, believes race-based affirmative action works against Obama: “It racializes the campaign in a sense that Obama has been trying to avoid.”
Even after Obama’s call for a “national conversation on race” following the emergence of inflammatory comments by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he’s engaged the topic of race very selectively, even declining to speak to the New York Times for an article on that very conversation.
Obama, Bickers went on, “needs a very large black turnout in several key states. And if he takes a position that suppresses the enthusiasm of potential voters who are [supporters of] affirmative action then he’d be in trouble,” he said.
Polls have consistently shown Obama’s support among blacks at over 90 percent, and given the popularity of class-based affirmative action among whites, embracing that view could earn him considerably more new white votes than the black votes he might lose.
Obama, said Bickers, “could use it if he wanted to have his own Sister Souljah moment about affirmative action to redefine it in economic terms and that would play in to a post-racial candidacy."