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.
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