Politics & Policy

Obama’s Race Problem

And a unique opportunity.

After months of encouragement from nearly every corner of the country, on Saturday Barack Obama officially entered the race to become the next president of the United States. Unlike Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in earlier runs for the Democratic-party nomination, Sen. Obama, so far, has prudently not predicated his candidacy as a racial metaphor as these men did. This is a wise — and winning — decision.

Despite his multiracial lineage — his mother was a white Kansan, his father a black Kenyan — Obama claims he stopped advertising his mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, but instead, embraced his racial identity as a black man. So, how much, if at all, should Obama’s race matter to us anyway?

The simple answer is none at all — race should have no bearing on the merits of anyone’s candidacy. But that is not the case with Barack Obama. One of the reasons Americans are enthralled with him is precisely because he is black and for the unique American melting pot story of his heritage. Without a doubt, most Americans would love to see a black win the presidency, thus concluding the long and difficult struggle of blacks to achieve political representation and power. For white Americans, such an outcome would have the tacit effect of exonerating them of the country’s historical racial failures. Or, as Hoover Institution scholar Shelby Steele has observed, “to demonstrate to the world that they’re not bigots.” Given all this, how then should Barack Obama thread the needle of his racial identity? And what policies regarding race should he advance?

Who Is Barack Obama?

It is unclear from his speeches and writings how much importance Barack Obama puts in his racial identity. Take, for example, his first book, the autobiography Dreams From My Father, written in 1995 at the age of 33. In it he chronicles his painful search for a father he never knew and a “workable meaning for his life as a black American.” Throughout the book, whether as a teenager growing up in middle-class Hawaii or much later as a visitor to Kenya, he struggles with the meaning of his race: “My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there.”

Between the publication of his first and second book, Obama spent eight years in the Illinois senate. In 2004, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, he delivered the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The speech was masterfully inspiring and included what many believed was his understanding of what role race should have in America today: “There is not a Black America and a White America and a Latino America and Asian America — there’s a United States of America.”

But Obama backs away from this vision two years later in The Audacity of Hope, his best-selling political manifesto. He writes, “when I hear commentators interpreting my speech to mean that we have arrived at a ‘postracial politics’ or that we already live in a color-blind society, I have to offer a word of caution. To say that we are one people is not to suggest that race no longer matters — that the fight for equality has been won, or that the problems minorities face in this country today are largely self-inflicted.” Yet, he concludes that “the overwhelming majority [of white Americans] these days are able — if given the time — to look beyond race in making their judgments of people.”

Together, these musings suggest that Obama, like many Americans, is ambivalent about how much race should define our lives. Yet if he is unsure of the degree race defines his life, he is much more certain of the policies the nation should pursue to close the education and economic gaps between the races.

What Would He Prefer?

Although he has been a vocal supporter of racial preferences in the past, Obama begins to suggest a different policy direction in The Audacity of Hope. Race-based affirmative action policies, he recognizes, have polarized the races, while race-neutral or “universal” programs unite them. “Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America; even the most fair-minded whites…tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization — or race-specific claims based on the history of race discrimination in this country.” During his first trip to New York as a young man, he writes, he “began to grasp the almost mathematical precision with which America’s race and class problems joined.”

Advocates of “class-based” or “race-neutral” affirmative action have been around a long time — even then-Governor George W. Bush supported “need-based” government contracting set-asides, as did many congressional Republicans in the 1990s. But, for the most part, no recent Democratic presidential aspirant has been as bold as Obama in discussing the problems with race-based affirmative action: “An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific, programs isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics.”

Beneath this extraordinary statement, coming as it does from a black, Democratic, presidential aspirant, lies a massive iceberg capable of transforming the nation’s racial policies — if he has the courage to pursue it.

Obama is correct about the political implications — it is beyond debate that ending race-specific programs is good politics. Given the chance, the overwhelming majority of whites want to end race-based affirmative action as was evidenced last November when Michigan voters passed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative by a 16-point margin. Ward Connerly and Jennifer Gratz, the organizers of the Michigan voter initiative, have announced plans to organize similar initiatives on Election Day in 2008 in as many as nine states, including the swing states of Missouri, Colorado, and Arizona. It is unlikely this has escaped the attention of campaign strategists in either party.

This presents Barack Obama with unique opportunity. Having campaigned against the passage of the Michigan initiative, can he chart a new path now that he is running for president? And, having admitted he attended Harvard law school because of affirmative action, can he now say the time has come to try something different?

To both questions, the answer is “Yes.” First, he is on record in his enthusiasm for universal preference policies, so advocating for “race-neutral” affirmative action is a short leap for him to make politically. Second, just because he was admitted to a prestigious school because of racial preferences does not mean his two young daughters should be as well. After all, it is unreasonable for him to argue that in 2007 his daughters should have the bar lowered for them, while the daughters of a white working-class family should not.

“A pro-civil rights Democrat doesn’t become complicit in an anti-civil-rights agenda because he or she questions the efficacy of certain affirmative action programs,” he wrote shortly before the last election. So, like Nixon’s overture to China, it may fall to a liberal, black Democrat like Barack Obama to question the wisdom of our current race-based affirmative-action polices and map a new course. Let’s hope he does.

— Edward Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Edward Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the president of the Project on Fair Representation.


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