False Hope
Obama and unity.


Peter Kirsanow

Anyone expecting that a President Obama will produce color-blind government policies is likely to be disappointed. Senator Obama’s rhetoric suggests that he doesn’t share his fellow Democrats’ obsession with counting by race or stridency in preserving affirmative action. But his actions reveal a doctrinaire liberal whose positions on matters pertaining to racial preferences are indistinguishable from those of the captains of the race industry.

State-sponsored racial discrimination has suffered several setbacks in the last few years. In 2006 the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), barring racial discrimination in public education, employment, and contracting, passed in a landslide with 58 percent of the vote. Last summer, in the twin cases of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County (Ky.) Board of Education, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to racial discrimination in public-school assignments.

Meanwhile, recent empirical studies show that racial preferences in college admissions severely harm the graduation and career prospects of the intended beneficiaries. Polls show Americans increasingly and overwhelmingly opposed to racial preferences; in some cases, as many as 75 percent of respondents take that position. Finally, Ward Connerly is working to have anti-discrimination initiatives similar to MCRI on the November ballot in Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Missouri, and the odds of passage are good.

Now comes Senator Obama, whose rhetoric of unity and intimations of race neutralism seem perfectly suited for the zeitgeist. Even some normally skeptical conservative commentators have expressed optimism that a President Obama will bring the preference regime, if not the entire race industry, to an end.

Listening to Obama, their hope is understandable. It sounds like he opposes racial and ethnic bean-counting, just as Bill Clinton once sounded like he opposed preferences. But when describing his positions on affirmative action, Obama uses phrases so slippery they make even Bill Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” formulation seem like Velcro in comparison.

Commentators began speculating in earnest about a post-racial Obama era after a May 13, 2007, interview on ABC’s This Week. The comments that generated the excitement were as follows:

[BLOCK]I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officers as folks who are probably pretty advantaged, and I think there’s nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities. I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.[BLOCK]

A quick read of the quote (or hearing it) does give one a general sense that Obama’s at least ambivalent about racial preferences. But read it more slowly and you see that Obama never says race shouldn’t be used, nor does he say that preferences should end. Indeed, when asked whether he thought Justice O’Connor was right when she wrote in Grutter v. Bollinger (the 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld the use of racial preferences in the University of Michigan’s admissions program) that in 25 years affirmative action may no longer be necessary, Obama adroitly evaded the question.

Instead of searching for elusive clues in Obama’s oratory to determine what he might do about preferences, it’s much easier to look at what he’s already done; his actions leave not a sliver of doubt. He’s firmly in the Ted Kennedy-Jesse Jackson-liberal establishment camp and has been during his entire political career.

For example, while he was in the Illinois state legislature , a candidate survey asked whether he thought the state government should take race and sex into consideration in university admissions, employment and contracting. Obama responded “Yes.”

When Grutter was issued in 2003, Obama immediately announced his desire to make sure that the decision remains in force. He went on to excoriate the Bush administration for its stance on the case.

Further, during a July 12, 2007, NAACP presidential forum, Obama emphatically stated that the Supreme Court’s decisions in the Seattle and Louisville public school cases were wrong. In interviews since then he’s occasionally suggested that class-based affirmative action also should be considered, but in the end, he’s always come down on the side of racial preferences in admissions, as well as race-based scholarships. Moreover, he admits to being a steadfast supporter of affirmative action his entire career. He’s never deviated from race-industry orthodoxy.

For anyone still clinging to a faint hope that Obama might abandon racial and ethnic preferences (and enrage the entire Democrat base in the process), Obama’s involvement in the MCRI campaign should settle the matter unequivocally.

Obama made a radio ad urging Michigan voters to vote against MCRI. But he went beyond that: Obama misrepresented the initiative. Obama contended that MCRI would eliminate efforts to help minority children in fields such as science, engineering, and mathematics. He claimed that it would wipe out programs to help minorities and women get good educations and good jobs — that it would close the door on minority opportunities. In fact, MCRI plainly stated that state agencies, public schools, and colleges may not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, education, or contracting.

The wording is nearly identical to Proposition 209 (the 1996 California initiative) and the 1998 Washington state initiative, so Obama wasn’t making these claims in an informational vacuum. The experiences of California and Washington State show Obama’s claims to be false. Moreover, the language of MCRI couldn’t be clearer. The initiative there and elsewhere leave untouched affirmative action as originally conceived — a vigorous outreach to include minorities and women in all endeavors. Further, affirmative action programs necessary for federal compliance remained intact. No doors whatsoever were closed to minorities or women.

It’s easy to be swayed by Obama’s cagey statements on race and unity. Americans desperately want to be swayed by them, by the promise of a colorblind society — where there are no hyphenated-Americans, only fellow Americans. Americans are eager for a leader to transcend color. Unfortunately, Obama’s not that guy.

– Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. These comments do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Commission.


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