"Race doesn't matter! Race Doesn't Matter!" chanted Barack Obama supporters after his victory in South Carolina.
Some of Obama's relatively conservative supporters are actually hoping that the crowd's chant was not a mere incantation, but had some substance behind it.
Mickey Kaus has suggested that explicitly opposing affirmative action could become Obama's "Sister Souljah Moment." Writing in Slate, Richard D. Kahlenberg notes that Ward Connerly and the American Civil Rights Institute will be attempting to put five statewide referenda against racial preferences for the 2008 election. He argues that Obama could use these initiatives as an opportunity to appeal to white working class voters.
Kahlenberg believes that "Obama has been encouraging on this front." He points to the Senator's reply to George Stephanopoulos's question of whether his own kids deserved preferences—Obama conceded "I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged…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."
Obama made some similar suggestions in his latest book, The Audacity of Hope. He even argued that one is not ipso facto "anti-Civil Rights" because one "questions the efficacy of certain affirmative action programs."
Some Establishment conservatives have fallen for it. Writing in National Review Online (of course), the American Enterprise Institute's Edward Blum hoped that "like Nixon's overture to China, it may fall to a liberal, black Democrat like Barack Obama to question the wisdom of our current race-based affirmative-action polices and map a new course."
The Left is already mulling over this possibility. Also citing Connerly's initiatives, Richard Kim worries in The Nation about what happens when Obama's "own rhetoric of 'race doesn't matter' comes back in the form of a civil rights backlash?" and that his economic populist appeals end up "deflecting the matter of structural racism."
Unfortunately, Kim's fears and Kaus, Blum, and Kahlenberg's hopes, are unlikely to come to fruition. Despite his vague allusions to the plight of working class whites, Obama has a long record of supporting racial preferences. The NAACP gives him a 100% rating for his votes on affirmative action. And for all the talk about Connerly, no one has apparently noticed that Obama made radio ads against his Michigan Civil Rights Initiative just last year.
The only real difference between Obama and more left wing supporters of Affirmative Action is that he does not defend it with specific race-based arguments. But this may be purely tactical. In The Audacity of Hope, he wrote "rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America", so that most whites do not want to hear arguments about how blacks are owed anything due to past or present discrimination.
Thus he told Tavis Smiley this summer that civil rights legislation is not just good for blacks "but it was good for America as a whole." Thus while he acknowledged African Americans and Hispanics had some responsibility to improve their own situation, he also called for a general "social responsibility" of all Americans to seek equality. Essentially, Obama promotes race-based policies using race-blind rhetoric.
But however Obama chooses to use his words, affirmative action cannot be separated from race. At the end of the day, the whole purpose of the policy is to give advantages to one race over another.
Obama has not suggested replacing race-based affirmative action with income-based preferences. All he would do, apparently, is add lower-income whites to the list of "underprivileged" groups. This will leave even fewer spots to the most qualified students. The truly colorblind policy would be to abolish race based preferences and reinstate meritocracy.
Obama may make long-winded speeches on the campaign trail about how he will tinker with affirmative action, but it is unlikely in the extreme that he will make any serious move towards genuine equality of opportunity. This leaves the state Civil Rights Initiatives as a valuable wedge issue for Republicans.
But they probably won't take it. For Obama was not the only politician to oppose the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. He was joined by the Michigan Republican gubernatorial and senate candidates, the chairman of the state GOP, and virtually every statewide official with the exception of Attorney General Mike Cox. (It still passed overwhelmingly, of course).
With John McCain as the Republican nominee for president, we shouldn't expect more leadership. Ward Connerly has recalled that McCain had urged state legislators in Arizona not to vote for a bill that would outlaw racial preferences because "it might 'send the wrong message'"
You can be sure McCain will be even more concerned about "sending the wrong message" if Obama becomes the Democratic nominee. The mere thought of being accused of playing the race card will scare McCain and his Republican Establishment supporters out of their wits.
And even the slightest discussion of preferences will certainly bring allegations of "racism", complete with media flashbacks to Jesse Helms's famous (and election-winning, but that doesn't seem to matter) "white hands" ad. [Watch in Youtube]
Obama's supporters have already done this against Hillary Clinton.
You can only imagine what they have in store for Republicans.
Marcus Epstein [send him mail] is the founder of the Robert A Taft Club and the executive director of the The American Cause and Team America PAC. A selection of his articles can be seen here. The views he expresses are his own.