A Question Of Race Vs. Class
Affirmative Action For the Obama Girls?
By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; A15
when they apply to college -- not because of their race, at least. In
the unlikely event that the Obama family goes broke, then maybe.
In an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Obama waded into
the central issue of the affirmative action debate: race vs. class.
Perhaps typically, Obama's remarks were more Socratic than declarative.
He didn't really answer the question, he rephrased it. Maybe the way he
posed it, though, will lead to a discussion that's long overdue.
George Stephanopoulos asked Obama whether his daughters should be able
to benefit from affirmative action when the time comes for them to go to
college. The girls "should probably be treated by any admissions officer
as folks who are pretty advantaged," Obama said.
Stephanopoulos was driving at the question of whether race-based
affirmative action programs are still needed. Another way to frame the
issue is whether race or class is the more important factor in our
society. Are minorities who are raised in middle-class or wealthy homes
still held back by racism? Or should we now focus on socioeconomic
status as the principal barrier keeping people from reaching their
Obama's answer, basically, was yes. To both questions.
Obama has repeatedly gone on record as a supporter of affirmative
action. But "if we have done what needs to be done to ensure that kids
who are qualified to go to college can afford it," he said in the ABC
interview, "affirmative action becomes a diminishing tool for us to
achieve racial equality in this society."
He seemed to side with those who think class predominates when he said,
"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."
It's hard to disagree with that proposition, especially as economic
inequality worsens in this country. Harvard University (where Obama went
to law school) has taken the lead in guaranteeing that money will not be
an obstacle for qualified low-income students.
But Obama seemed to agree with those who point to the lingering effects
of racism when he noted 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."
That observation points to circumstances that have to be taken into
account. Diversity, in my view, is very much in the national interest.
But diversity is a process, not a destination. We have to keep working
at it. And since a college degree has become the great divider between
those who make it in this society and those who don't, affirmative
action in college admissions is one of the most powerful tools we have
to increase diversity.
The formal separate-but-equal framework is long gone, but de facto
separation and inequality persist. Minority students are
disproportionately disadvantaged by having to attend substandard primary
and secondary schools. Their parents are less likely to have attended
college and thus may not be familiar with all the things parents have to
do to make their children competitive when it comes time to apply for
college admission. And while racism is not the institutional and legal
straitjacket it was 50 years ago, it persists in subtler yet still
Yes, class is important. But race is, too, and while I hope we
eventually get to the point where race is irrelevant, we still have a
long way to go.
As for Obama's assessment of his daughters' privileged status, that's
just a statement of the obvious. With such Type A, high-wattage parents,
those girls probably will have the grades and test scores to get into
any college. And if they don't, they will benefit from a different
affirmative action program -- one that for many generations has ushered
the academically undistinguished scions of prominent families into the
nation's most selective colleges and universities.
Let's not pretend that college admissions has ever been a level playing
field. Obama graduated from Columbia; his wife, Michelle, from
Princeton. This means that at those two Ivy League schools, their
daughters will be "legacy" applicants, just like George W. Bush was at
Yale and legions of Kennedys have been at Harvard. Given the Obamas'
power and fame, admissions officers at the schools they attended -- and
probably at other elite schools, too -- are going to find a way to let
the Obama girls in.
Obama's response does sort of highlight one of those great loopholes in affirmative action. For the record, I generally support affirmative action. However, I think most people, at least those who went to expensive private schools at some point in their education, know that there are many rich people of color use the self identifying part of the app to exploit the system. And certainly my Distinguished Institution was much more concerned with shipping in photogenic bodies of color rather than focusing on giving tuition breaks to the truly disadvantaged. And that's not affirmative action was intended for, and certainly not what it should be used for.
Is Obama correct in saying that his daughters shouldn't get any breaks? I'm not really sure. I mean the writer of the article has a point, with a senator for a dad, and a (former) high powered lawyer for a mom, those two probably won't want for anything. And I agree, I've seen tons of extremely rich kids of color who were pretty much ignorant of their privilege and probably never saw it because money smoothed the way for them. However, I also resist the raising of class over race. Doing so makes this more palatable for white people, because they can avoid talking about race. That said, generally speaking, I generally have more in common with the working class white person than the rich person of color, in terms of everyday worries and the reality I live.
I don't think I'm going to come to any conclusion on this today.