Debates about affirmative action have always made me uncomfortable. I believe in fairness, mainly in the form of meritocracy -- equality of opportunity, not outcome. However, it's also obvious that opportunities are not equal in our society, and a lot of those inequalities are racially distributed. Our massive achievement gaps are proof of that.
My (limited) experience suggests that in most parts of America, soft discrimination is a much bigger problem that overt KKK-style bigotry. I've always worried that racial affirmative action perpetuates the stereotypes it is meant to compensate for. Also, many black kids are born into well-educated, affluent families and it seems unfair to give them a bonus intended for the disadvantaged. So in the big pro/con debate of affirmative action, I've leaned con.
Of course, as a half-white, half-Asian child of upper-middle class parents with advanced degrees, it's simply not PC for me to speak against affirmative action. What do I know about race and discrimination?
So three cheers to Barack Obama for saying what I couldn't, as reported in Sunday's NY Times.
Read the whole article for details; the main idea is that Obama is on record as saying that affirmative action should be based on socioeconomic status instead of race. His daughters have grown up privileged; they don't need or deserve affirmative action.
During a presidential debate in April, Mr. Obama said his two daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, “who have had a pretty good deal” in life, should not benefit from affirmative action when they apply to college, particularly if they were competing for admission with poor white students.
This take on affirmative action sits a lot better with my conscience. It shares opportunity fairly and broadly, but doesn't reinforce racial stereotypes. I don't know the details, but I like it.
I don't know how this idea will play out in public opinion, but I'm hopeful. Two years ago, Michigan went through a similar debate on Proposal 2, a constitutional initiative to make "preferential treament on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin" illegal in the state. Campaigns on both sides fought angry and dirty. I quietly supported the Prop 2 for the reasons above. Liberal newspapers around the state castigated moderates making essentially the same argument that Obama is making. Affirmative action played out as a divisive polarizing issue.
This time, the combination of messenger and message seems to have some resonance. (See the same NY Times article for some details.) If Obama pushes, he may have the reach and credibility to reshape take the affirmative action debate beyond race -- a real milestone for American politics.
We'll see how it goes, but so far on this issue I think Obama is living up to his potential for running a truly post-racial campaign.
PS - The picture in this post is borrowed from http://lib.colostate.edu/research/divandarea/bif/archive/bif03/affirm.jpg. I have no idea what their content is like. Go Google images!