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Tilting at Windmills

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May 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA AND AFFIRMATIVE ACTION....I've seen several bloggers suggesting today that Barack Obama repudiated race-based affirmative action in his interview with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday (see Malena Amusa here, Jon Chait here, Paul Butler here). That would be pretty big news if he did, which makes it odd that ABC's own summary of the Stephanopoulos interview doesn't even mention it and the New York Times writeup gave it only a couple of paragraphs at the end of a short story.

So did Obama really do any repudiating? Here's the complete transcript:

Stephanopoulos: You've been a strong supporter of affirmative action.

Obama: Yes.

Stephanopoulos: And you're a constitutional law professor so let's go back in the classroom.....I'm your student. I say Professor, you and your wife went to Harvard Law School. Got plenty of money, you're running for president. Why should your daughters when they go to college get affirmative action?

Obama: 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.

Stephanopoulos: Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that in 25 years affirmative action may no longer be necessary. Is she right?

Obama: I would like to think that if we make good decisions and we invest in early childhood education, improved K through 12, if we have done what needs to be done to ensure that kids who are qualified to go to college can afford it, that affirmative action becomes a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality in this society.

Hmmm. This is pretty hard to deconstruct. Which two concepts is he talking about? Presumably (a) it's OK to reduce race-based affirmative action for well-off black kids and (b) it's OK to increase class-based affirmative action for poor white kids. But Stephanopoulos doesn't seem to think this is a big enough deal to follow up on, and Obama's subsequent statements seem to be pretty standard affirmative action boilerplate. If either one of them thought Obama was making news, they sure managed to cover up their excitement.

In any case, the most Obama seems to be suggesting is that he's OK with income-based affirmative action and — maybe — also OK with a modest reduction in race-based affirmative action for well-off blacks. Sometime in the indefinite future, that is. But it's hard to tell. Obama doesn't like being nailed down on specifics much, and this is a topic where nobody likes being nailed down anyway. I suspect we'd need some detailed followup to see if there's really anything here.

But it would be nice if there were. Switching to a system of class-based affirmative action, perhaps combined with very modest levels of race-based affirmative action, would probably accomplish about as much as we accomplish now, and do it with far less acrimony. It's certainly something worth injecting into the national conversation.

Kevin Drum 7:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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In any case, the most Obama seems to be suggesting is that he's OK with income-based affirmative action and — maybe — also OK with a modest reduction in race-based affirmative action for well-off blacks.

Actually, I think what he is saying is that he favors affirmative action which looks at circumstances holistically, including, but not limited to, race, and addresses structural disadvantage.

Switching to a system of class-based affirmative action, perhaps combined with very modest levels of race-based affirmative action, would probably accomplish about as much as we accomplish now, and do it with far less acrimony.

Well, its true by definition that, say, in California's public universities, switching to class-based affirmative action with race-blind admission policies would acheive exactly what we have now (with exactly as much acrimony), since California already did that a long time ago.

OTOH, its also demonstrated fact that doing so did not acheive the same effects in terms of participation by race, so I don't know why, aside from a aversion to facts, one would claim that switching to that basis for affirmative action would generally produce the same results with less acrimony.

Posted by: cmdicely on May 14, 2007 at 7:51 PM | PERMALINK

When the resume of a black-sounding man with a college degree has roughly the same chance of getting its owner a job interview as the resume of a white-sounding man with no degree and a felony conviction, I think we're a little ways from the point where we can go with class-based preferences and downplay the need for race-based affirmative action.

Posted by: paul on May 14, 2007 at 8:03 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely: I'm not sure that California's higher ed admissions policies are as class based as you suggest. Would need to investigate some more on that score. As for facts, though, check out the report at the link.

Paul: True enough, though I don't think that plays a big role in higher ed admissions. I'd also be a little careful about those studies. I think they demonstrate something real, but the methodology has sometimes struck me as a little iffy. I think they might produce bigger results than are warranted.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on May 14, 2007 at 8:12 PM | PERMALINK

I assume that you are being sarcastic when you say it is pretty hard to disconstruct, and then you go on the summarize it accurately.

Obama is obviously not repudiating AA, only articulating that it be applied only when necessary to level the playing field, and that at some point in the future, perhaps when his daughters are of college age, that the AA sails may need to be trimmed.

This is hardly groundbreaking.

Posted by: Disputo on May 14, 2007 at 8:13 PM | PERMALINK

Instead of race-baiting, we'll get class-baiting. There's no set of rules for a system that will be accepted across the board. Therefore, you'll always get a group of pissed off people complaining that it's unfair. (and there's always the equal-protection clause).

But if you set up the rules so that the class with the most money is pissed off, in a society that equates money with speech, then that class of people will make themselves heard. Loudly. Fair or not.

Posted by: bungholio on May 14, 2007 at 8:18 PM | PERMALINK

We should really ditch AA. Yes it is an attempt to fix a real problem, but it's just a *bad* solution. We can do better, but we won't so long as we're circling the wagons around Affirmative Action. And so long as we do we hand an issue to the right to use against us.

Posted by: Tlaloc on May 14, 2007 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK

But it would be nice if there were. Switching to a system of class-based affirmative action, perhaps combined with very modest levels of race-based affirmative action, would probably accomplish about as much as we accomplish now, and do it with far less acrimony.

So instead of playing the race card for college admissions, you prefer having class warfare. Oh, that's so much better! *Snicker*
Why not just choose students based on MERIT instead of engaging in reverse discrimination, whether based on race or class?

Posted by: Al on May 14, 2007 at 8:45 PM | PERMALINK

I don't see what's so hard here. he's obviously open to tinkering with the system to allow class to play a part as well as race, he notes that race and class still intersect in the US re outcomes (making any measure of "merit" tht doesn't take this into account inaccurate on it's own basie, Al,)& therefore thinks that race based AA can't be abandoned entirely. His point RE genertions of college attendees in families is good & often lost in this debate too. so, tinkering, yes, maybe eventually rendered obselete, yes. repudiated? No.

Posted by: URK on May 14, 2007 at 8:50 PM | PERMALINK

I functioned as an affirmative action officer for years earlier in my career. I think the candidate might not be as good on his feet as he is in giving inspiring, well-received speeches.
Sometimes I think his general inexperience shows itself. It kind of reminds me of Edward's unfortunate haircut for some reason.

Posted by: consider wisely always on May 14, 2007 at 8:51 PM | PERMALINK

bungholio, um, the reason why income-based affirmative action doesn't provoke the same acrimony is cause, well, it doesn't hurt the odds of rich kids getting into college at all. you'd have to get rid of both legacies and merit-based admissions to do that.

Posted by: idiotbungholio on May 14, 2007 at 9:02 PM | PERMALINK

why does the link to the archived wash. monthly post have a "www2" address?

Posted by: john on May 14, 2007 at 9:14 PM | PERMALINK

Stop stealing my material, Al.

And yes, we'd all love to have a society that's a true Meritocracy. C-minus cokeheads like Bush would have never even gotten their applications read at any Ivy League school.

Posted by: bungholio on May 14, 2007 at 9:16 PM | PERMALINK

If only those ingrates of color that have benefitted the most from affirmative action, like Clarence "Uncle Tom" Thomas and Kindasleezy Rice, would start supporting it, we might get somewhere!

Posted by: The Skeptical Deflator on May 14, 2007 at 9:26 PM | PERMALINK

I say Professor, you and your wife went to Harvard Law School. Got plenty of money, you're running for president. Why should your daughters when they go to college get affirmative action?

ANSWER:Because like George W Bush at Yale, they will be legacies, the ultimate form of affirmative action. (assuming, of course, his daughters go to Harvard);>

Posted by: Martin on May 14, 2007 at 9:36 PM | PERMALINK

Affirmative action does more harm than good IMHO. The good thing about it is that encourages minorities to believe that they will get into college and to work toward that goal. The harm is:

-- Black students get into universities where they're less qualified than most. As as result, the nationwide college graduation rate for black students stands at an appallingly low rate of 42 percent.

-- Affirmative action makes all black achievement dubious. People without specific knowledge will neverthelss denigrate black graduates because of it, as the skeptical deflator did a few posts above.

-- Affirmative action admission to college helps people ignore the disaster of most inner city schools. The real solution is to improve inner city education.

Posted by: ex-liberal on May 14, 2007 at 9:50 PM | PERMALINK

I love all these euphemisms we use today.

Affirmative action, euphemism for racism against whites.

Neoconservative, euphemism for Jew who prefers that hillbillies die for Israel.

Social conservative, euphemism for Catholic or Holy Roller.

Comprehensive immigration reform, euphemism for comprehensive immigration corruption.

Patriot Act, euphemism for Comprehensive Bill of Rights reform.

Posted by: Luther on May 14, 2007 at 10:09 PM | PERMALINK

My interpretation is he's saying that he does prefer switching over to a class-based affirmative action, but rather than trying to completely overhaul the system he'll be looking to make slow changes in that direction.

Posted by: Lee on May 14, 2007 at 10:26 PM | PERMALINK

White AmeriKKKa has to pay for their legacy of racism and KKKlan. I'm pretty sure 90% of you agree with me!

Posted by: apple_grinder on May 14, 2007 at 10:26 PM | PERMALINK

I'm pretty much a liberal, but I don't like affirmative action. I understand the reason behind it, but I suspect it does more harm than good. The message it gives to the fortunate majority is that the minority couldn't 'make it' without a special assist. It gives the same message to minorities. How can they know they have arrived on their merits when everyone is telling them they got special privileges?

Please forgive me for sharing a personal anecdote. When I was a kid, I used to play ping-pong with my older brother, and he always beat me badly. Because this wasn't fun for me, he started offering me 'handicaps' as an inducement to continue playing, as in, "Here, I'll give you 9 points to start with."

I could never win. Then one day I said, "I don't want any extra points. Let's just play."

I didn't start to win, but I did start to do better. And later, even better. Eventually, I won a game or two. I know this is only a personal anecdote, but it had great resonance for me, and to me it seems to apply to anyone working against a serious challenge. When you believe you can win without special help, you can. When you think you can't, you can't.

I went to work in corporate America in the 1970's. I was just a girl with a math degree, and at first they made me an accounting clerk with an obligation to make coffee. But time went on, and I kept saying, "Let me do that. Can I try that? I'd love to learn how to work the computer!" and so forth.

Now, 30 years later, I'm the IT manager in a bank. No one "gave" me anything, and I didn't want them to.

I'm offended by the idea of affirmative action. I sincerely believe it hurts those it claims to help.

Posted by: Jan Lewis on May 14, 2007 at 10:31 PM | PERMALINK

Nice to see ex-liberal and Al-bot doing their furious best to defend their precious plutocracy. Ah the right-wing noise machine is more desperate then ever! We have them on the run comrades, just apply more force! Be relentless. Don't show the slightest bit of mercy to these wingnuts. Give no quarter. No mercy.

Posted by: apple_grinder on May 14, 2007 at 10:31 PM | PERMALINK

Jan Lewis:

We don't need your house slave mentality here. I bet you say "massa" real well.

Posted by: apple_grinder on May 14, 2007 at 10:32 PM | PERMALINK

Switching to class-based affirmative action would either

- Massively redistribute preferences from blacks and Hispanics to whites and Asians; or

- Require such massive increases in the extent of preferences (at least a doubling) to avoid hurting blacks and Hispanics that the economy would be badly hurt by a big increase in the number of incompetents getting admitted, hired, and promoted.

The unfortunate truth is that whites in the bottom tenth of the socio-economic scale average higher SAT scores than blacks in the top tenth. A class-based system would render many institutions far less "diverse" than they are at present.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 14, 2007 at 10:33 PM | PERMALINK

apple_grinder:

We don't need your house slave mentality here. I bet you say "massa" real well.

House slave? Look, kiddo, it was gals like me changed the world. You've noticed, perhaps, that women have achieved real respect in the world? Get to have real jobs, that get paid real money? You can thank people like me for that. My father had 3 sons and 1 daughter. Wouldn't pay for me to go to college because "a girl doesn't need an education." So I paid my own way. Went to work in the corporate world when they thought we were only fit to serve coffee. Showed them different. Bite me, kid. You have no idea.

Posted by: Jan Lewis on May 14, 2007 at 10:44 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin is right. I have never understood why no politician, democrat or republican, has pushed the issue of affirmative action for economically or socially disadvantaged persons, without regard to race. It is an idea that virtually no one would disagree with - lend a helping hand to people less fortunate who are willing to work hard. And since a large number of the beneficiaries would be blacks and hispanics, it would accomplish results similiar to affirmative action without racial bias.

Obama would be the perfect candidate to push the issue, and it might get him elected president. Is there any reason not to get behind this idea?

Posted by: brian on May 14, 2007 at 11:08 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin! Deconstruct? Deconstruct what?

This wasn't some expansive, complicated explanantion. It's a Sunday morning rapid-fire conversation (which I don't watch).

How about simple comprehension.

Steph: Should there be affirmative action?

Obama: Yes.

Steph: Even for priviliged black kids like yours?

Obama: All aspects of an application should be taken into account to make sure that the diasadvantaged have at least near-equal access to get ahead, but race is still a factor.

Steph: Are we going to get past this some time the next 25 years.

Obama: No, but I can't say that.

I apologise if anybody has already torn Kevin off a strip, but his comment was so mealy I couldn't stop myself to read.

Alright. Deep breath.

Posted by: notthere on May 14, 2007 at 11:38 PM | PERMALINK

BTW-Obama's children would still have a leg up at Harvard due to legacy scholarships...affirmative action by another name....

Posted by: justmy2 on May 14, 2007 at 11:42 PM | PERMALINK

So Al thinks people should be chosen on merit, whatever merit is. I do know it is not what got W. into Yale and Harvard business school. I have a lot of respect for the U. of Texas Law school, which had the guts to turn W. down.

The big secret in higher education admissions is that most schools have a form of affirmative action for males. Straight across males just aren't competitive with the women in today’s admission market. But the schools don't want to be disproportionately female, because having men around makes it easier to recruit the top-notch women.

Posted by: fafner1 on May 14, 2007 at 11:51 PM | PERMALINK

Not that I would expect the US to look at any other country for any comparative experience -- y'all think ya know it all -- but you can look across to Europe for rapidly changing population ethnic profile and see what happens.

UK is a useful example with sizable populations of Carribe-African and African, Indian and Pakistani, as well as S.E. Asia and others. Selection for most universities is both race and class blind, students being told what grades they need to get to college ahead of time. However, although the Indian population os approaching white higher-eduacation rates, the otheres are not. Which is to say that Pakistanis and blacks are being educationally ghettoized by merit only adjudication. Which coincides with unemployment and poverty.

So, merit alone does not work. Unless you believe Pakistanis and Africans qualify at less than half the rate whites do.

Hope this is the only time I part agree with never-ever, but efforts have to be made at the school level, but from pre- through highschool with attached social service support.

I don't see why, in a rich society, kids have to pay completely for their parent's failings.

Posted by: notthere on May 14, 2007 at 11:59 PM | PERMALINK


Yale switched to a system that put far more weight on academic merit about two years after Bush was admitted. That was some time ago.

Posted by: gcochran on May 15, 2007 at 1:11 AM | PERMALINK

A child needs a good K through 12 education with good parental guidance from literate, well paid parents with enough spare time to read to their kids starting at an early age, coupled with good health and dental care, clean affordable housing, and respect from all members of the community willing to share with those less fortunate. Then we can talk about what sort of help we can give the college bound.

If the conservatives of the Reagan era had put as much effort into providing for the needs of minority infants and youngsters and their hard working families, instead of placing obstacles, the whole question would be moot today.

Instead, the attitudes for decades placed the full burden on the disadvantaged. We still have families in poor housing, parents with low wage jobs, decaying schools, absentee parents, illiterate children tending to their younger siblings, underpaid teachers, and poor health and dental care.

I am particularly troubled when I hear restrictive and punitive views from religious fundamentalists.

Republicans in Congress have increased the burden on college bound students by privatizing and increasing the interest on student loans, reducing Pell Grants, and underfunding university research for all students. This also burdens the "middle class conservative."

(We have to pay for that Bush-War somehow, if we can't raise taxes on the rich.)

Conservatives want to protect their privileged position by denying the income gap. They shout "class warfare" whenever anyone point out the obvious differences in cradle to grave advantages.
A well educated and well paid society would be to everyone's advantage. For some reason, conservatives cannot see that.

Conservatives believe in merit, as long as it does not interfere with privilege.

Posted by: deejaays on May 15, 2007 at 2:47 AM | PERMALINK

Just more Obama mouthing off about something he should know about but does not. He seems to be making it up as he goes along and predictably winds up with his foot planted firmly in his mouth.

Obama is a train wreck and the sooner you guys realize it and get off the better.

The Democrats have a good chance of winning the White House and the Congress in 2008, but not with the slippery, fast-talking and woefully inexperienced Obama.

Posted by: truthteller on May 15, 2007 at 2:47 AM | PERMALINK

Affirmative action benefits affluent blacks at the expense of working-class whites. Not by design, but that's how it works in practice. There can be no surer poison.

Posted by: captcrisis on May 15, 2007 at 6:04 AM | PERMALINK

So, merit alone does not work. Unless you believe Pakistanis and Africans qualify at less than half the rate whites do.

But the original post wasn't about "merit alone." Kevin's piece was about Obama's thoughts on class-based (as opposed to race-based) affirmative action. If, as you say, Britons of Pakistani and African origin are lower on the socioeconomic scale than white Britons, there shouldn't be any reason in theory why class-based affirmative action couldn't be a plausible solution.

Posted by: Jasper on May 15, 2007 at 6:46 AM | PERMALINK

We used to have a class-based AA system of higher ed- the land-grant colleges and universities. High society went to private schools that admitted on the basis of who your parents were, and the common folk could attend a land-grant school at modest, or in the case of California, no cost.

Like Topsy, those land-grant schools grew- and grew more expensive. The AA programs are a tar-baby allowing liberals and conservatives to avoid the real necessity of making higher education available to all, at all ages.

In this, the AA programs echo school bussing, which allowed districts to continue to put most of the money into schools in white neighborhoods, on the pretext that these schools now needed money to educate minority students being bussed in.

Of course, you don't need a college degree to see that spending half the national budget on war for half a century will distort and hollow out your economy. AA in real terms today is a stint in the military, and how this will play out in the long run is anybody's guess.

Posted by: serial catowner on May 15, 2007 at 8:06 AM | PERMALINK

"ex-liberal" wrote: Affirmative action does more harm than good IMHO.

Since you have a long and shameful record as a dishonest neocon toad, who cares what your "HO" is?

And "ex-liberal", if you're going to quote statistics, you need to provide a cite. Your word is no good here, and you know it -- hell, you work overtime to ensure it.

Posted by: Gregory on May 15, 2007 at 8:07 AM | PERMALINK

U of Texas Law School did not "turn W. down." Yes, W. applied at U of T Law School and was not accepted. But one must understand how most law schools admissions work. First the applicant must take and get a score on the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test). Score can be between 144 to 180 or 181.

The law school then using an X-Y type graph plots each applicants LSAT score on one axis and Undergraduate GPA on the other axis. The ones that fall below the 'cut-off' score, don't get in.

Also, seing as law school tests are graded anonimously (sp), it is just as well, W. did not get in. He would not have been invited back for his second year.

Posted by: Chief on May 15, 2007 at 8:15 AM | PERMALINK

Class is a very tricky concept - is it income? wealth? household education? speech?

A child from a house with 2 parents with minimal employment & maximum education has huge advantages. As a measure for admissions, it lacks objective measurability.

the other problem with class, of course, is that its not supposed to be mentioned. Class warfare in the US is supposed to be secret, waged only by the overclass against the underclass. what kind of commie are you?

Posted by: Downpuppy on May 15, 2007 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Omigod, we should be so pleased that Obama is willing to discusss class at all, much less get to the reality-based heart of the matter in so pithy a way.

What's the problem here again?

Posted by: Lucy on May 15, 2007 at 10:07 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, but: "Affirmative action" isn't one thing. "Affirmative action" is many different things.

Suppose a private college wanted to have students of various races, and suppose some well-off black kid (perhaps named Obama) fell a bit short of normal admission criteria. Would it be wrong to admit that well-off black kid over a slightly higher-scoring, well-off white kid? That would be "affirmatiove action" and it would help a well-off black kid. But it might be helping the college's overall mission too--for example, by giving its students a chance to live in a multiracial environment.

Posted by: bob somerby on May 15, 2007 at 10:17 AM | PERMALINK

Class is a very tricky concept - is it income? wealth? household education? speech?

I expect that family income would soon become the dominant factor if colleges start using class-based affirmative action. It's easily quantifiable, not particularly subjective, and most of all, thanks to financial aid applications, is readily available to college officials. You'll note that these characteristics also apply to race/ethnicity-based affirmative action, which despite its controversial nature is an absolute breeze to administer.

Posted by: Peter on May 15, 2007 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

Four years ago one of my kids applied to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, one of the most selective public universities in the nation. Most of the Cal State schools admit you based on grades and test scores alone, but CPSLO is competitive enough that it's found it necessary to ask a few additional questions.

One of the questions they ask is whether your parents attended college.

I thought this was a great question and a wonderful way to level the playing field for all kids, regardless of race. Kids of any race whose parents went to college have many advantages over those whose parents didn't go to college.

Posted by: G.Jones on May 15, 2007 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Not to sound like a broken record, but you mean 'analyze,' not 'deconstruct.' The former means something like "take apart in a way that generates understanding," whereas the latter means something like...well, nobody really knows. Deconstruction is supposed to be undefinable. But something like: "reveal inevitable and inevitably contradicting "dualities" buried in the mumble mumble mumble text."

Sorry. Pet peeve. Nothing to see here. Move it along...

Posted by: Winston Smith on May 15, 2007 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Winston,

I'm inclined to agree with you. But I'm noticing something in college classrooms. It seems like 'deconstruct' is losing its original meaning and coming to mean something like 'analyze'.

If you think about it, this is probably a good thing.

Posted by: DBake on May 15, 2007 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

It's amazing how many people are completely ignorant of the swath of literature documenting stereotype threat. In the case of ST, a negatively stereotyped person can, in fact be just as "smart" as a positively stereotyped person but perform less well on standardized tests and in classes. Negative stereotyping raises blood pressure among other things. So a black man who performs as well as a white man most likely had the more impressive performance. It's easier to use the "less qualified" argument then to have to deal with pretty solid research showing you can't, at this point in time, compare directly so easily.

Posted by: gq on May 15, 2007 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

I expect that family income would soon become the dominant factor if colleges start using class-based affirmative action. It's easily quantifiable, not particularly subjective, and most of all, thanks to financial aid applications, is readily available to college officials.

Income is about the worst possible way to classify class. Only the rich can afford to live with zero income. CEOs will start to negotiate to defer their salaries away from their children's college application years in order to maximize their kids' admission chances.

Posted by: Disputo on May 15, 2007 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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