Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. (right), arrives with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., at an event in Unity, N.H., last Friday. It was their first joint public appearance since the divisive Democratic primary race ended. To her backers, Clinton said: “I know that [Obama]’ll work for you. He’ll fight for you, and he’ll stand up for you every single day in the White House.” (AP photo/Alex Brandon)
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama’s political success might claim an unintended victim: affirmative action, a much-debated policy that he supports.
Already weakened by several court rulings and state referendums, affirmative action now confronts a challenge to its very reason for existing. If Americans make a black person the leading contender for president, as nationwide polls suggest, how can racial prejudice be so prevalent and potent that it justifies special efforts to place minorities in coveted jobs and schools?
“The primary rationale for affirmative action is that America is institutionally racist and institutionally sexist,” said Ward Connerly, the leader of state-by-state efforts to end what he and others consider policies of reverse discrimination. “That rationale is undercut in a major way when you look at the success of Senator Clinton and Senator Obama.”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who would have been the first female president if elected, battled Obama to the end of the Democratic primary process.
Other critics of affirmative action agree.
“Obama is further evidence that the great majority of Americans reject discrimination, reject prejudice,” said Todd F. Gaziano, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Not so fast, say supporters of affirmative action. Just because Barack Obama, who would be the U.S.’s first black president, Oprah Winfrey and other minorities have reached the top of their professions does not mean that ordinary blacks, Latinos or women are free from day-to-day biases that deny them equal access to top schools or jobs, they say.
As affirmative action’s power has diminished, minority enrollment has fallen at many prominent colleges, said Gary Orfield, an authority on the subject at UCLA.
“If people get the impression from Obama’s success that the racial problems of this country have been solved, that would be very sad,” Orfield said. “In some ways we have moved backwards” in recent years, he said.
Said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights: “Exceptions don’t make the rule.”
“By any measure, Obama and Clinton are clearly exceptional individuals,” he said. “When you really examine the masses of Americans, especially women and people of color, you still find incredible disparities,” which justify the continuation of affirmative action programs.
Obama, who asks voters neither to support nor oppose him on the basis of his race, has dealt gently with affirmative action. He says his two young daughters have enjoyed great advantages, and therefore should not receive special consideration because of their race.
“On the other hand,” he said in an April debate, “if there’s a young white person who has been working hard, struggling, and has overcome great odds, that’s something that should be taken into account” by people such as college admission officers.
“So I still believe in affirmative action as a means of overcoming both historic and potentially current discrimination,” Obama said. “But I think that it can’t be a quota system and it can’t be something that is simply applied without looking at the whole person, whether that person is black, or white, or Hispanic, male or female.”
Tucker Bounds, spokesman for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, said McCain’s commitment to equal opportunity for all Americans “means aggressively enforcing our nation’s anti-discrimination laws.”(p2)