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Obama on the Right to Be Mediocre



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We’ve been hearing a good deal lately about Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s views on racial preferences, but what exactly is President Obama’s own position on this issue? Obama’s electrifying address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention led many to think of him as a “post-racial” politician. (Recall young Obama supporters chanting “Race doesn’t matter!” during the campaign.) A careful look at Obama’s record in the Illinois state senate, however, shows him to have been a highly conventional proponent of racial preferences. (See my piece, “Barack Obama’s Lost Years.”)

An article on Obama and minority hiring practices from the July/August 1990 issue of the Chicago Reporter casts new light on this issue. The report is actually a small “box” within a larger article on minority hiring at Chicago law firms. The box features a photo of the young Obama and the headline: “Top Student: What Kind of Minorities Do Firms Want?”

At the end of this “box” comes a remarkable passage that needs to be quoted in full:

Even firms that are making an effort to recruit minorities–and there still are not many of them, Obama said–are reluctant to take a chance on students who do not have the top credentials. It has been said, Obama noted, that it may be time to ask if minorities are getting the same right to be “mediocre” as white males.

Lest it be said that I am taking this passage out of context, let me provide a sense of Obama’s broader stance, as conveyed in this article. Essentially, in a series of extended quotes, Obama argues that minorities who are bright and able may not necessarily go to the best law schools (because of financial constraints, for example). This leads Obama to make the case that law firms should adjust their standards in the case of minorities. That’s my quick summary and characterization, but let me present some of Obama’s own words:

…the point is that there are a lot of talented young minorities who may not have been able to go to the top law schools. For example, a lot of minorities go to state schools due to financial constraints.

Until the minorities who are going to the good but not the most prestigious schools, those who are doing a good job, who are highly competent and have the intelligence and the energy to do terrific work–until those people are looked at and hired in significant numbers–I think you are going to continue to have serious recruitment and retention problems.

The “box” goes on to note that Obama is currently a summer associate at the firm of Hopkins & Sutter in Chicago. (Obama’s more widely known summer stint at Sidley & Austin came the year before.) Obama then says that, given his Harvard background, he has “all the right credentials.” It is in this context that Obama follows up by suggesting it may be time to ask if minorities from less prestigious schools are getting the same right to be “mediocre” as white males.



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