Obama on Affirmative Action: Don`t End It, Don`t Mend It, Extend It!
May 16, 2007, 10:36 AM
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Mickey Kausgets all excited over Sen. Barack Obama's Sunday talk show statement that he sort of kind of favors class-based preferences. Mickey writes:

Even Barack Obama, under pressure from George Stephanopoulos, seemed to be abandoning the affirmative action idea and shifting toward embracing a class-based preference system, notes Roger Clegg... This is more than a potential 'Sister Souljah moment' for Obama. Obama would not be showing that he can reject the more extreme, wacky positions of his party's component interest groups. He'd be showing he's rejecting what has been a central and widely accepted demand of an interest group with which he is inevitably identified. He's not quite there yet—and maybe he'll have to backtrack after hisABC This Week comments—but he's at least on the verge of giving voters not merely a reason to not oppose him, but a big reason to support him—the prospect that President Obama will end race preferences and the long, divisive debate they generate.

Mickey's enthusiasm is a classic example of Obama's knack for I-Have-Understood-Youisms, where people assume that because Obama seems to understand their views, he must share them. But as the French settlers in Algeria discovered when De Gaulle, shortly after famously telling them "I have understood you," gave their country to their mortal enemies, understanding is not always the same as favoring.

Anyway, the transcript is remarkably lacking in evidence "that President Obama will end race preferences." It just shows a politician slip-sliding around an interviewer. If anything, Obama seems to want to add class-based quotas on top of race-based ones. Hey, Obama didn't go into politics to leave people alone. The more government meddling the merrier!

Stephanopoulos: You've been a strong supporter of affirmative action.

Obama: Yes.

Stephanopoulos: And you're a constitutional law professor so let's go back in the classroom.....I'm your student. I say Professor, you and your wife went to Harvard Law School. Got plenty of money, you're running for president. Why should your daughters when they go to college get affirmative action?

Obama: Well, first of all, I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged, and I think that there's nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities. 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. So I don't think those concepts are mutually exclusive. I think what we can say is that in our society race and class still intersect, 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.

Stephanopoulos: Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that in 25 years affirmative action may no longer be necessary. Is she right?

Obama: I would like to think that if we make good decisions and we invest in early childhood education, improved K through 12, if we have done what needs to be done to ensure that kids who are qualified to go to college can afford it, that affirmative action becomes a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality in this society.

I would like to think that too. I don't actually think that, but I would like to think that.

That Obama is making vague noises in favor of class-based affirmative action is hardly new news — the rhetoric is also in Obama's bestseller The Audacity of Hope.

Nor is the idea of class-based affirmative action new. There was a book about it a dozen years ago that made waves in the centrist wonk world. The idea was tangentially part of Clinton's disingenuous policy of delay and distraction on affirmative action: "Mend It, Don't End It." The reality is that quotas are a very simple policy, a hard to screw up policy that isn't really mendable. It's either a good idea or a bad idea. But the existence of vague alternatives in the air like class-based affirmative action helped Clinton give the impression that everything bad about affirmative action was going to be reformed away Real Soon Now, leaving just the good parts. In reality, almost nothing was done at the federal level (other than Gingrich's Congress abolished tax breaks for television stations bought by minorities), which is exactly what Clinton intended all along.

Nothing ever happens with the idea of class-based affirmative action because it is fatally flawed.

Switching to class-based affirmative action would either:

  • - Massively redistribute the current number of affirmative action slots from blacks and Hispanics to whites and Asians; or
  • - Require such huge increases in the extent of preferences (at least a doubling) to avoid hurting blacks and Hispanics that the economy would be badly damaged by the big increase in the number of incompetents getting admitted, hired, and promoted.

The latter would appear to be Obama's theoretical preference, but it's all just a rhetorical game. There is absolutely no chance that the upper half of the white population will give up significant money and power for the benefit of less competent individuals from the lower half of the white population.

Anyway, let me remind everybody that the debate over affirmative action is highly unrealistic because the model everybody has in their heads is university admissions, but that's just a minor element. In the more-important employment sphere, as I wrote in VDARE.com in "The Unmentionable Root of the Quota Problem,"the reality is, unfortunately, that racial quotas are the inevitable by-products of our anti-discrimination laws. When Barry Goldwater explained how the 1964 Civil Rights Act would lead to quotas, Hubert Humphrey famously promised to eat a printed copy of the lawif it ever happened. But merely a half-decade later, quotas were commonplace.

Quotas are now treated by conservative ideologists as the arch-betrayal of the �colorblind� 1964 Act—forgetting Goldwater's prophetic logic. But the truth is that, regardless of the letter of the law, aggressively-enforced anti-discrimination laws automatically lead to quotas. These laws place the burden of proof on the employer to justify any deviation from equal outcomes in hiring and promotions. Lawsuits can be won. But the cost can be so crushing that most firms will do what it takes to stay out of court. So they use quotas.

As long as there are strong anti-discrimination laws and enforcement agencies that prefer to err on the side of minorities, corporate America will impose quotas on itself.

So, will President Obama attack anti-discrimination laws? Well, here's a clue. When he got out of Harvard Law School at age 30, with hundreds of job offers to choose among, what job did he pick? Right ... anti-discrimination lawyer.