Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Obama and the Obvious

The issue of affirmative action is absent this presidential campaign so far, even though neither Democrats nor Republicans have been loath to exploit race and ethnicity when convenient.

Republicans — John McCain excepted — have used the legitimate problem of illegal immigration as a cover to ingratiate themselves with that swath of the electorate that is made uneasy by Spanish-speaking immigrants, whether illegal or legal. It’s an embarrassment for their party.

Democrats’ race wars have their own weird charm. Did she say LBJ and not MLK should get credit for civil rights? Or is he falsely claiming she said that? And is it more historic to be the first woman president, or the first black president? Because you know, women have historically been more oppressed than blacks. No, wait…isn’t it the other way around?

In their own way, as pathetic as the Republicans.

But affirmative action, which was big news in 2003 when the Supreme Court made a ruling in the University of Michigan case that displeased both sides of the debate, has been practically ignored by the major candidates.

None of their websites treats affirmative action as a major policy issue. Neither has it been a factor (has it been mentioned at all?) in debates — so much so that when the conservative National Review Online just a few days ago wanted to castigate Hillary for her position on racial preferences, it had to refer back to a press release from her Senate office about the Supreme Court’s decision in the Michigan case, back in 2003.

Of the major candidate’s websites, it is Barack Obama’s that contains the most direct references to affirmative action. It has three of his speeches that mention it: at the commemoration in March last year of the Selma voting rights march, at historically black Howard University in September, and a month later in East L.A.

That Obama spoke about affirmative action in front of a largely Hispanic crowd is not without meaning. Neither is the fact that anti-affirmative action activist Ward Connerly, who organized efforts to ban racial preferences in California, Michigan and Washington, now has his eyes set on Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Does it foreshadow where the affirmative action debate is heading? With all the anger about immigration, and referendum fights in five states, will the two issues become linked?

If they do, the link will not connect all immigrants to racial preferences — just those deemed to be a “minority.”

The way affirmative action works, no Albanian immigrant who owns a plumbing business will qualify for ethnic small business set-asides, but his Hispanic competitor will. Similarly, when applying to college the children of that Albanian will not get an extra boost because of ethnicity, while the son of a Hispanic brain surgeon will be considered disadvantaged, and get an edge he does not need.

This system says immigrants who are Hispanic, like blacks but unlike immigrants from Europe (nobody is sure what to do about Asians), carry impediments that can only be left behind with outside help. Like a disease of some sort.

Sounds like something the rabid anti-immigrant right might rant about. But no. It’s the left that supports ethnic preferences insulting to its supposed beneficiaries.

Republicans have zero credibility on the issue. Most of the pack is too tainted by pandering to xenophobes, and even if McCain took a strong position against racial preferences, it would be dismissed as a case of Republicans doing what Republicans usually do.

Which is why the demise of affirmative action can only be set in motion by a Democrat. And who better than Barack Obama, an intended beneficiary by reason of ethnicity, yet also someone who clearly does not need anybody’s patronizing help?

In those three speeches on his website, Obama defended racial preferences. But in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” last May, he said affirmative action should become “a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality,” and seemed to recognize it would be ludicrous for his children to be treated as anything other than “folks who are pretty advantaged.”

Sometimes, what leadership requires is courage to spell out the obvious.

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