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Obama Cools on Affirmative Action

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Posted on May 15, 2007

By Eugene Robinson

WASHINGTON—Barack Obama doesn’t think anyone should cut his two daughters any slack when they apply to college—not because of their race, at least. In the unlikely event that the Obama family goes broke, then maybe.

    In an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Obama waded into the central issue of the affirmative action debate: race vs. class. Perhaps typically, Obama’s remarks were more Socratic than declarative. He didn’t really answer the question, he rephrased it. Maybe the way he posed it, though, will lead to a discussion that’s long overdue.

    George Stephanopoulos asked Obama if his daughters should be able to benefit from affirmative action when the time comes for them to go to college. The girls “should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged,” Obama said.

    Stephanopoulos was driving at the question of whether race-based affirmative action programs are still needed. Another way to frame the issue is whether race or class is the more important factor in our society. Are minorities raised in middle-class or wealthy homes still held back by racism? Or should we now focus on socioeconomic status as the principal barrier keeping people from reaching their potential?

    Obama’s answer, basically, was yes. To both questions.

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    Obama has repeatedly gone on record as a supporter of affirmative action. But “if we have done what needs to be done to ensure that kids who are qualified to go to college can afford it,” he said in the ABC interview, then “affirmative action becomes a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality in this society.”

    He seemed to side with those who think class predominates when he said, “I think that 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.”

    It’s hard to disagree with that proposition, especially as economic inequality worsens in this country. Harvard University (where Obama went to law school) has taken the lead in guaranteeing that money will not be an obstacle to qualified low-income students.

    But Obama seemed to agree with those who point to the lingering effects of racism when he noted that “there are a lot of African-American kids who are still struggling, that even those who are in the middle class may be first-generation as opposed to fifth- or sixth-generation college attendees, and that we all have an interest in bringing as many people together to help build this country.”

    That observation points to circumstances that have to be taken into account. Diversity, in my view, is very much in the national interest. But diversity is a process, not a destination. We have to keep working at it. And since a college degree has become the great divider between those who make it in this society and those who don’t, affirmative action in college admissions is one of the most powerful tools we have to increase diversity.

    The formal separate-but-equal framework is long gone, but de facto separation and inequality persist. Minority students are disproportionately disadvantaged by having to attend substandard primary and secondary schools. Their parents, disproportionately, may not have attended college, and thus may not be familiar with all the things parents have to do to make their children competitive when it comes time to apply for college admission. And while racism is not the institutional and legal straitjacket it was 50 years ago, it persists in subtler yet still pernicious forms.

    Yes, class is important. But race is, too, and while I hope we eventually get to the point where race is irrelevant, we still have a long way to go.

    As for Obama’s assessment of his daughters’ privileged status, that’s just a statement of the obvious. With such Type A, high-wattage parents, those girls probably will have the grades and test scores to get into any college. And if they don’t, they will benefit from a different affirmative action program—one that for many generations has ushered the academically undistinguished scions of prominent families into the nation’s most selective colleges and universities.

    Let’s not pretend that college admissions has ever been a level playing field. Obama graduated from Columbia; his wife Michelle from Princeton. This means that at those two Ivy League schools, their daughters will be “legacy” applicants, just like George W. Bush at Yale and legions of Kennedys at Harvard. Given the Obamas’ power and fame, admissions officers at the schools they attended—and probably at other elite schools, too—are going to find a way to let the Obama girls in.

    Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)washpost.com.   

  © 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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By Daniel Fyffe, May 18, 2007 at 10:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Equality and equity are the core concerns.
Equating Mr. Obamas relative success with his childrens right to full societal participation is perfectly absurd.
A flower grown through cracks in the concrete hardly illustrates a garden.
Blacks and Browns are concievably even lesser in numbers amongst wealthy and well educated than their allowed access to colleges.
As reported in the L.A. Times, last year U.C.L.A. admitted 901 black students (most of which are athletes) in to a body of over 45 000 students.
At U.C. Berkeley, only 2.3% of students are African- American
This is a far greater issue than the ability to pay tuition,yet indeed the cost of knowledge skews the debate.
Affirmative action is not merely a notion of preferential treatment.
We are talking about a body of academically equally qualified kids who are grossly underrepresented at institutions of higher learning.
This is very much a class issue, and peeking at the balance sheets of society, we will easily recognize the folks who historically and presently are kept in the shadows.
Yes, kept in the dark!
I strongly urge anyone desiring enlightenment as to the necessity of educational opportunity for minorities to read “Race and College Admissions” by Jamillah Moore.

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By rage, May 16, 2007 at 5:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The day we realize that there is but one race of true concern, the human race, and that we’re fighting various types of classism, we will all overcome. It’s all a plot by the top 5% of the human population to distract the rest of us from paying much mind to the social injustices that are born out of the harsh inequities of contemporary wealth and resource distribution. We have managed to see beyond the myth of occidental Divine Providence. Why can’t we take the next step to band together the most affected 95% of ourselves against that murderously avaricious elitist top 5% who retain a controlling stranglehold on every facet of our meager existences? Seeing past their distractions would render classism obsolete through addressing, with fairness and real balance, the real needs of the bottom 95%, making unnecessary such mandates as affirmative action through the provision of true equal opportunity.

Currently, we suffer from too many have-nots riduculously identifying with the haves for absurd reasons. The upper 5% knows how to play that trump card that divides and conquers us all the time. They pit nation against nation and ethnos against ethnos, all within the HUMAN RACE. They’ll promise the religious man heaven and the lowest man on any totem pole the seat of the CEO, all the while richly rewarding the incompetence that treacherously perpetuates confusion and counterproductivity. Why? Because constantly changing the rules and altering the playing field pushes access to resources and control illusively out of the reaches of the masses. Power always evades that larger body distracted. We’ve got to pull together and, if nothing more, focus on there being more of us who are hungry and disenfranchised than there are of those who are affluent and fed.

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By English Teacher, May 16, 2007 at 10:25 am Link to this comment

Students are generally disadvantaged by economics and family dynamics rather than race. Unless, of course, one believes in the racist ideology that blacks need extra help to succeed because they are black. In my experience as a high school teacher, the biggest difference between students that succeed and those that struggle is the parental skills and of the parent(s). No government or private sector program can counteract an uncaring or inactive parent. And nothing can keep an underpriveledged student who has desire and the support of parents from succeeding.

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By Dave Summers, M.D., May 16, 2007 at 10:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Here’s my response to Eugene Robinson’s needful remarks on Sen. Obama’s cooling-down on race-based Affirmative Action—that JFK Executive Order, which, like his vow to refrain from Vatican influences if elected President, was tactful, morally correct, legally justifiable & even overdue.  It is still necessary because of America’s “skin-pigmentation schizophrenia”, as Obama knows, but sufficient $$$ to give Blacks a fair chance in life’s journey is an ideal far from being realized.  Even if it were to approach that idealistic zenith, Caucasians & Clarence Thomas would adopt even more resistance-verbiage.  This Obama knows also and underscores why he used the subjunctive “if” and what the situation [“would be”] if America would finally act on her ideals.  “The deed…[remains] our tender need” (John Drinkwater) so to maintain political appeal to widely diverse voters, Obama cannot ignore practicability.  Yet, Americans “who know & know that they know” racism are Black, and we’re equally wise in knowing that race-based Affirmative Action, like the freedom described by poet, Robert Hayden, is “needful to [us] as air”, hence must not end and should continue as long as obviously necessary.

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By ldog25, May 16, 2007 at 2:09 am Link to this comment

As Robinson notes in his conclusion, the wealthy have long had their own form of “affirmative action” in higher education through the existence of “legacy” preferences - odd that Ward Connerly has never actively fought for the discontinuation of this particular form of undeserved privilege.

The notion that past and current affirmative action programs ONLY address race is itself a falsehood - gender equity programs are similarly geared toward repairing the historical exclusion of women.  What is generally not known is that private universities often practice a form of class-based discrimination through the active recruitment of “full-pay” applicants (whose tuition often offsets any costs for the admission of need-based applicants) - if you’re borderline academically, but you have the $$$, you’ll get preference over the above average student who’ll require more than just student loans to cover tuition and other costs.  If you happen to be a white student who is denied admission under this second category, the assumption is that they have lost their seat to a “less qualified minority,” when in reality they’ve lost it to someone who is indeed less qualified, but is far wealthier, rather than being African American or Latino.

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By ardee, May 15, 2007 at 5:26 pm Link to this comment

An unfortunate title mars this reportage of Obama’s position, in my opinion.

Rather than cooling his ardor for affirmative action Obama broadens the issue to be more inclusive rather than supports its continuation as an exclusively black issue. I applaud this effort, frankly, though I am not among those who support his candidacy.

Of course racism is alive and well in America, but what better way to deal with this (hopefully) dying vestige of our heritage than by making the phrase “affirmative action” inclusive? A few more of these positions and I may convert to a supporter of his race for the nomination.

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By THOMAS BILLIS, May 15, 2007 at 2:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If Obama does not know the problems the minorities face in this country bettering themselves pivotal being going to college than I have to agree with those who say Barak is not black enough.Affirmative action was put in place to rectify hundreds of years of prejudice.Anti Poverty programs were put in place to alleviate an economic issue.One is for the soul the other is for the wallet.If Obama does not get the difference maybe he should change his name to Clarence Thomas.

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By Sid, May 15, 2007 at 1:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Minority students are disproportionately disadvantaged by having to attend substandard primary and secondary schools.”

Isn’t that primarily because they are poor? Again, if we handled the class issue, the race issue would take care of itself.

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