"MOST WORKING- AND middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race," Senator Barack Obama bravely asserted in his March 18 speech. "Their experience is the immigrant experience--as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives . . . So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."
These were courageous words for an African-American politician to utter. They acknowledge on some level the legitimacy of resentment of affirmative action programs, placing that resentment and anger on a par with the bitter taste of discrimination in the black community.
Those who see this as a major cause of discord in race relations were heartened by Sen. Obama's words. Here, at last, was an African-American official talking openly and with no rancor about white middle-class Americans' concerns over racial preferences. Barack Obama has opened the door for a national discussion on race, pundits claimed.
True . . . but only to a point. Sen. Obama probably is the first presidential candidate to talk with such candor about race relations. Add to that his position as the first African-American presidential candidate with a serious chance at his party's nomination and the presidency itself, and it's a historical moment deserving of the attention it's received.
But it's not the first moment in recent times that such a discussion on race was promoted--in deed as well as in word--by an African-American leader.
A scant two years ago, Ward Connerly was leading the fight for an initiative in Michigan that would clearly end the resentment of whites over preferences, while at the same time making it crystal clear that racial discrimination was against the law. Connerly promoted and campaigned for Proposition 2, an amendment to Michigan's constitution that would prohibit the state from "discriminat[ing] against, or grant[ing] preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."
Sen. Obama opposed Ward Connerly's work. In fact, he lent his voice to a radio ad during the campaign for the initiative. The radio ad was sponsored by a group called One United Michigan and talked about leveling the playing field for minorities and women.
One United Michigan sponsored other ads, including one radio spot that asked these questions: "If you could have prevented 9-11 from ever happening . . . would you have . . . If you could have prevented Katrina . . . what would you have done?" The ads likened Proposition 2 to a "national disaster headed for Michigan."
Ending affirmative action--and only in state contracts and programs--is akin to killing 3000 people in an act of terrorism? Maybe Sen. Obama will have to give a speech distancing himself from that distasteful analogy as well.
Despite such scare tactics, despite the opposition of politicians like Senator Obama, Proposition 2 passed with a sizable majority (58 to 42 percent).
Ironically, on the very day that Sen. Obama gave his inspiring speech about race issues in America, a federal judge in Michigan continued Ward Connerly's task of healing racial resentments. On March 18 Judge David M. Lawson refused to strike down Proposition 2, ruling that it did not violate the U.S. Constitution.
The Michigan initiative sought to address the very wrongs that Sen. Obama talked about. No racial discrimination, no racial preferences--a simple but critical principle in the march toward that more perfect union Americans of every color desire.
Libby Sternberg, a school choice advocate, is the author of four novels, the first of which was an Edgar finalist.