Affirmative action foes point to Obama

Say candidate is proof effort no longer needed

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joseph Williams and Matt Negrin
Globe Staff And Globe Correspondent / March 18, 2008

WASHINGTON - Leading opponents of affirmative action are increasingly seizing on Illinois Senator Barack Obama's historic run for the presidency as proof that race-based remedies for past discrimination are no longer necessary.

Influential Republicans and a growing number of policy specialists at conservative organizations, including the Goldwater Institute, Project 21, and the Manhattan Institute, are citing the fact that large numbers of white voters are supporting Obama, who leads in the race for Democratic delegates, as evidence that affirmative action has run its course.

Ward Connerly, a black conservative who is leading a national effort to ban racial preferences, vowed to use Obama's success as evidence for anti-affirmative action ballot initiatives his organization is promoting in five states. Connerly, who helped dismantle affirmative action policies in California universities and public hiring in the 1990s, said he has donated $500 to Obama's campaign.

"I've been saying for a number of years that the American people are not institutionally racist," and Obama's strong support among white voters proves it, said Connerly, founder of the American Civil Rights Institute, an organization that backs proposals to end affirmative action in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. "It underscores my position . . . that affirmative action is an idea whose time has passed.

"The whole argument in favor of race preferences is that there is 'institutional racism' and 'institutional sexism' in American life, and you need affirmative action to level the playing field," he said. "How can you say there is institutional racism when people in Nebraska vote for a guy who is a self-identified black man?"

In interviews, many other affirmative action opponents expressed similar sentiments. But affirmative action proponents say Obama's campaign, which has tried to transcend race, is proof that the system is working and should not be dismantled.

"I think blacks who have opportunities can make it . . . but we know that many black kids do not have the opportunities that Barack Obama had," said Cynthia Brown, education policy director for the Center for American Progress in Washington. "But we have many, many black kids who didn't have that and were born into families who couldn't provide those experiences and couldn't attend the schools that Obama did and took advantage of."

Obama, who graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, has said he is firmly behind efforts to expand diversity, particularly in higher education. However, he has implied that such programs should be reexamined, and perhaps be more closely tied to class instead of race.

Asked if his young children would be candidates for affirmative action when they reach college, Obama said their middle-class upbringing should disqualify them.

"I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any [college] admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged," Obama said in an interview with ABC News. "We should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed."

Obama's acknowledgement - that some white students may deserve preferences, while some black students might not - undercuts the notion that the effects of past racial discrimination are still a bar to opportunity for most black people.

David Hollinger, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley history who has studied race in America and examined the Obama candidacy, said the prospect of having a black presidential nominee in the middle of a debate over racial preferences is "a huge problem for the Democrats."

The decades-long battle over ways to correct the effects of past racism is a perpetual lightning rod for the right and the left, but the clash has become more intense in recent decades. Conservatives insist that remedies launched by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson have done enough and must end; liberals and civil rights activists argue that the playing field is still not level.

In June 2003, considering two cases brought by white students objecting to affirmative action plans at the University of Michigan, the Supreme Court ruled that public institutions of higher education can consider race in deciding who gets admission, but they cannot favor it over other factors like test scores. President Bush praised the justices for striking a balance between diversity "and the fundamental principle of equal treatment under the law."

With the law in flux, however, the next president will almost certainly have to address affirmative action.

Si Sheppard, a Boston University political science professor, said the next president will have a range of options: He or she could use executive power to change the government's policies, make Supreme Court appointments that could alter the court's views on the issue, and use the White House "bully pulpit" to place the issue on the national agenda.

If Obama reaches the White House, Sheppard said, he "would have more freedom" to grapple with the issue because of his strong support among African-Americans. Yet, because Obama was raised in Hawaii, a more racially tolerant state, and because his mother was white and his father was Kenyan, "he isn't associated with the traditional civil rights community" that had to fight for equality, Sheppard said.

If Obama wavered in his support for affirmative action, he could alienate black voters, but if he expands racial preferences whites would be resentful, which "could cause some splintering" among his carefully crafted, multiracial coalition, Sheppard said.

In response to a Globe request for comment, Obama's campaign issued a statement by him that said affirmative action programs, when properly structured, "can open up opportunities otherwise closed to qualified minorities" without harming whites. Yet, "we shouldn't ignore that race continues to matter" in American society, Obama said; to suggest otherwise "turns a blind eye to both our history and our experience - and relieves us of the responsibility to make things right."

Bill Burton, Obama's chief spokesman, declined to elaborate beyond the statement.

For activists who oppose affirmative action, however, Obama's experiences tell a different story.

Abigail Thernstrom, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and longtime critic of affirmative action, said having Obama as president would support the notion that "we do not need racial double standards because blacks can make it in every walk of American life."

"It changes the conversation for the better," Thernstrom said of Obama's success. "It sends an important message about white racism, and the level of white racism in this country, if you've got a huge number of whites voting for a black man."

Hollinger said having Obama defend affirmative action could be tricky for Democrats, particularly with Obama's apparent willingness to consider class as a factor.

"Times have changed," said Deneen Borelli, a fellow at Project 21, a group of black conservatives. "There are plenty of opportunities available, but to have this crutch . . . is just wrong. It's discriminatory on all ends."

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