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.