The Magazine

Obama's Opportunity

To truly transcend race, he could call for an end to racial preferences.

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Barack Obama is promising change, and in an important respect he is delivering it. Obama, the son of a Kenyan, is African American, yet he isn't offering himself as "an African-American candidate" but as a candidate who happens to be African American. That's a big change. He has made transcending race an explicit theme of his campaign. That, too, is a change (cf. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton).

This is not what many Americans might have expected in an African American running for president, and it helps account for Obama's astonishing rise. Yet it remains the case that the senator from Illinois has taken positions on issues involving race that are at odds with his soaring rhetoric about overcoming racial division.

Consider, for example, Obama's criticism of the Bush administration for opposing race-based preferences in the 2003 Michigan admissions cases. Obama was for preferences. In the undergraduate case, the admissions program automatically awarded 20 points to African-American, Hispanic, and American-Indian applicants. (You needed 100 out of a possible 150 to be admitted.) Applicants of the "wrong" race and ethnicity--whites and Asian Americans--thus were disadvantaged in the competition for places. The Supreme Court ruled against the university, though it also left the law school's admissions program standing. As a result, admissions programs across the nation are able to continue to use race and ethnicity as selection criteria.

On the campaign trail Obama often says that he doesn't see a black America or a white America or a Latino America or an Asian America, but the United States of America. But that's not how admissions officers at many institutions of higher education decide who gets opportunities. They see race and ethnicity, and they choose who gets admitted with those criteria in mind.

In 2006, Obama opposed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. "Proposal 2 is wrong for Michigan and it's wrong for America," he said in an ad. The measure passed with 58 percent of the vote. Now part of the Michigan code, the law prohibits preferences in employment, contracting, and education (including, by the way, the preferences at the law school upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003).

Obama's criticism of the Bush administration in the Michigan cases and his opposition to the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative suggest that he's a standard-issue liberal on policy questions involving race. Yet there may be more to him.

Obama has shown a willingness to consider positions that depart from the party line. Take the case of race-based admissions programs: Though Obama supports them, he seems open to changing them so that they are based on socioeconomic criteria. Last May he said on ABC's This Week: "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." If admissions programs were class-based, they would no longer distinguish and divide by race. You could even say they would transcend race.

Obama's candidacy invites a hopeful question: Would he be willing to move against preferences as our 44th president? The reasons to think he wouldn't are obvious. He is, after all, a Democrat, and most Democrats in national leadership positions are, as he has been in office, defenders of preferences. Yet his campaign rhetoric embraces principles that, if he were to apply them fairly, would demand an end to preferences.

Obama not only speaks about the need to transcend race and overcome racial division, but he also seems to have rejected the racial essentialism that preferences promote. In his victory speech in South Carolina, Obama condemned "a politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us." If that "old politics" is to be repudiated, what should take its place but the politics advanced by the civil rights movement until recent decades, which respects the right of each individual to be treated without regard to race or ethnicity? That politics gained its finest legal expression in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a plainly colorblind law. The civil rights initiatives passed in recent years by California, Washington, and Michigan (and on the ballot in five states this November) likewise forbid different treatment based on race.

If Obama were to decide to move against preferences, he could look to the precedent of the Democratic Leadership Council, which in 1995 called for an end to preferencs in all federal programs. He could point out that the DLC's position, whatever its merits then, has become more and more compelling with the passage of time. Preferences were introduced into the federal government (as elsewhere) and have been continued on representations that they would be temporary. Surely, Obama could say, after 40 years they have served their purpose. Note, by the way, the familiar terms in which the DLC, 13 years ago saw race-based programs: Preferential affirmative action "divides Americans most dramatically along racial lines," making it "more rather than less difficult to transcend racial difference."

If he proposed phasing out preferences, Obama would meet with furious opposition from inside his own party, even from supporters of his candidacy. Obama would have to hold strong. But, if he did, voters tired of the "old politics" of race would have a strong reason to be for him. These voters would include many Democrats, to be sure, but probably also a substantial number of Republicans and independents.

And Hillary Clinton? How would she respond in the battle for their party's nomination? Certainly it would complicate the strategy the Clintons tried in South Carolina of making Obama into a "black candidate." And, if she decided to dig in her heels and defend her husband's work in 1995 when he was faced with what to do about federal preference programs, if she opposed Obama's position by saying that Bill's decision to "mend, but not end" affirmative action was right and that there is no need to revisit the matter .  .  . well, she wouldn't be on the side of change, would she? She'd be the one stuck in the past. Obama could be on his way to winning the nomination. And on to the making of a politically diverse and ultimately victorious coalition this fall.

Terry Eastland is the publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.