Bench Memos

Obama, Catholics, and Racial Politics

President Obama arrived in Northern Ireland this week to attend the G8 Summit, and he brought with him the familiar rhetoric of unity and of ending division.

Summoning the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, he raised the figurative pulpit in front of a crowd of 2,000 young people in Belfast and preached:

Issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity — symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others — these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it. If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation. 

Embedded in his argument are the assumptions that 1) the conflict in Northern Ireland was primarily motivated by religion and 2) parochial schools are responsible for encouraging division and often violence. Let’s assume President Obama is correct on both points.

In his eyes the prominent existence of separate Catholic schools and institutions stand as lingering reminders of hatred and fear, fomenting division and discouraging unity. If the president believes separate institutions based on religious beliefs are divisive in a country that has a history of religious tension, then surely he believes that separate institutions based on race are divisive in a country that has an ugly history of racial tension.

Based on his criticism of Catholic institutions, one can only expect President Obama to apply the same standard to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the U.S. But this is not the case. (For the record, I am fine with HBCUs as long as they are not discriminatory, but I do expect the president to be consistent.)

Unfortunately, when it comes to issues involving race, he is anything but consistent.As a candidate in 2008, he said that his daughters should not receive race-based preferential treatment when they apply to college, because of their relatively privileged upbringing. As president, however, he has vigorously supported policies that uphold different treatment based on race in public education, employment, and contracting — policies that would give his daughters special treatment solely because of their skin color. If anything is divisive, it is government-sponsored institutions picking winners and losers based on race.

The truth is that Barack Obama has always advanced two conflicting positions on race. The first position states that it is time to put racial division behind us and strive toward Martin Luther King’s vision of a truly equal and colorblind society. Those who still want to divide and profit from racial tension are merely clinging to the past. This is the message of Obama’s campaign speeches and public appearances.

The second position acts upon the notion that race is a powerful and effective political tool. Opponents are accused of being motivated by underlying racism and minorities are told they have a right to preferential treatment. Individuals are divided into victims groups, then mobilized for political causes.

One moment Obama is calling us to move beyond racial division, the next moment he is actively promoting it.

We have come a long way from the discrimination of the 1950s. Yes, racism still exists. It will likely never be completely eradicated. But thevast majority of Americans have come to realize that people should be judged on character and merit, not skin color, and this is reflected in recent polls showing strong opposition to policies of racial preferences.

The question now is will the Supreme Court end these policies of discrimination once and for all, or will they allow them to continue to divide and undermine the process of racial healing. We’ll find out on Monday. Or maybe Thursday.


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