Politics & Policy

Strategic Miss

Obama wallows in race.

Barack Obama, who apparently believes that the only way to get beyond race is by constantly evoking it, said Tuesday that while “we do not need to recite…the history of racial injustice” it nonetheless festers in just about everything Americans do. Then he recited the history of racial injustice.

Going to church in 2008, Obama noted, is infused with historical, racial meaning. So, too, are scads of other activities, such as going to school: “Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.”

Obama’s juxtaposition is inelegant. American public schools in 2008 are in fact quite different from those of 50 years ago. Today, no district in the nation prohibits a student from attending a certain school because of his skin color. Schools are no longer segregated by law, whereas in 1958 lots were.

The senator is troubled, therefore, not because many public schools remain de jure segregated, but because a variety of forces — housing patterns, the migration of middle-class families to the suburbs and to private schools, etc. — have rendered many urban classrooms virtually all-black or all-Hispanic.

The government has attempted to change this and engineer schools that enroll just the right ratios of white to black, Asian to Hispanic. Such efforts haven’t worked and have actually added to the racial solitude of classrooms. Parents frown when their children are used as pawns in social-engineering schemes. The busing of youngsters hither and yon, in diversity’s name, thus caused many parents to move to private schools or suburban districts where their students could attend schools near their homes.

If Obama wants to move past the divisive racial politics of the past, why does he rehash these divisive racial politics of the past?

Surely the senator knows that racial distributions in states, cities, and school districts will yield classrooms in which a lot of kids look alike. Surely he knows that public schools in, say, Chicago cannot hope to enroll significant numbers of white students any time soon. And surely he knows that within even the most ethnically integrated schools, academic achievement often remains segregated, with the toughest classes populated by a sea of white and Asian faces.

A candidate who really transcended race would steer away from tired discussions about who sits next to who in math class, away from musty arguments about busing and student-assignment plans, and toward educating kids. A forward-looking candidate would believe that all schools, regardless of their racial compositions, should expect their students to summit academic peaks.

This is precisely the philosophy of high-achieving, racially monolithic schools across the country, many of which are charter schools (Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and others) led by pioneering individuals. Hundreds of such places exist, and Obama is aware of them. In fact, he supports them: the Chicago Tribune has called Obama a “leading advocate in Illinois of charter schools.” But yesterday he turned his back on them and their most successful philosophy.

Obama wants it both ways. His idea of transcending race is to identify each race — its grievances, its tarnished histories, its “resentments” that “aren’t always expressed in polite company” — and highlight them, bring them to the fore. Only after this comprehensive hashing out of one another’s racial identity can we Americans begin to bury the hatchet. The change candidate yesterday quoted William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

Perhaps the past is not dead and buried, but Americans can choose whether or not they wish to wallow in it. Obama’s speech was a fancy way of exonerating himself from his deep association with a man who has reportedly preached hateful sentiments for years and from his membership in that man’s church. It was a speech that retreated to the past to justify distasteful acts in the present. Americans must decide if this rationale is convincing as a basis for national policy.

Some in this country have chosen a different strategy and are truly transcending race. In education, for example, it’s happening in those high-achieving charter schools, which have made balderdash of claims that minority students are condemned to failure unless they attend class with a patchwork of ethnicities.

Such successes are what will eventually wipe away the unsavory vestiges of racial discrimination that Obama and so many Americans deplore. Change will not germinate through chatting incessantly about race; through viewing individual Americans as racial amalgams, their actions as racially motivated; through remonstrating with racial groups over past wrongs, through airing racial grievances. Change sprouts when public policy empowers people with choices and opportunities and treats them not as representatives of their racial ancestors but with dignity.

Liam Julian is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He writes frequently about race and education.


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