Talking Points: Barack Obama on Affirmative Action
“Affirmative action is not going to be the long-term solution to the problems of race in America, because, frankly, if you’ve got 50 percent of African-American or Latino kids dropping out of high school, it doesn’t really matter what you do in terms of affirmative action. Those kids aren’t going to college.”
— Barack Obama, responding to John McCain’s announcement of support for a measure to ban affirmative action in higher education admissions, 7-27-08
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.
– Barack Obama in an interview with George Stephanopolous,
(Source: The Chicago Sun Times)
We have to think about affirmative action and craft it in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more.
–Barack Obama in a question and answer session at a July 2008 minority journalists’ conference
(Source: The New York Times)
In these three quotes, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is attempting to balance continued support for race-based affirmative action with his understanding that 1)affluent Black people have access to certain class-based privileges, and 2)many working-class and poor white people believe themselves to be marginalized relative to the U.S. social, economic, political, and cultural mainstream.
To speak to both truths is essential for Obama. After all, if he is elected, he will become president not only of African America, but of the entire United States. He will be duty bound to address the struggles of all people, . I certainly appreciate his need to craft and articulate a message that speaks to the broad range of American experiences, but I have take some issue with some of Obama’s position on this topic.
I am especially irked by Obama’s assertion in the third quote (above) that, “We have to think about affirmative action and craft it in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more.” This statement seems rooted in the false assumption that the economic privilege of an affluent Black family cancels out the impact of racism. This third quote engages in the zero-sum game of comparative oppressions. When the various “isms” of our society are pitted against each other, the result is an utterly unproductive battle that divides marginalized groups and hampers the creation of multi-racial and cross-cultural coalitions.
The struggles of a privileged Black boy or girl (like, for example, Barack Obama’s daughters) might be different than the struggles of a poor white person, but it is neither accurate nor useful to suggest that one group’s challenges are greater or less than the other.
As the one major party candidate who actually supports affirmative action, Obama has had to walk a fine line. I trust that the actual policies that he would employ in addressing this issue would be based on a more nuanced understand of the complex relationship between race and privilege.
Remember: If you care about this and other issues, vote — Democratic, Republican, Green, Independent, write-in, or anything else that speaks to your political beliefs. The important thing is to make your voice heard.
Posted by Ajuan Mance