By RACHEL L. SWARNS
© 2008 New York Times News Service
In 1990, as his fellow students rallied to protest the dearth of black professors at Harvard Law School, Barack Obama wrote a vigorous defense of affirmative action.
The campus was in an uproar over questions of race, and Obama, then the first black president of The Harvard Law Review, decided to take a stand.
Obama said he had “undoubtedly benefited from affirmative action” in his own academic career, and he praised the intellectual heft and wide-ranging views of his diverse staff.
“The success of the program speaks for itself,” he said of the law review’s affirmative action policy in a letter published in the school’s student newspaper.
Obama has continued to support race-based affirmative action, calling it “absolutely necessary” when he was a state senator in Illinois and criticizing the Supreme Court for curtailing it in his time in the U.S. Senate. But in his Democratic presidential campaign, he has unsettled some black supporters by focusing increasingly on class and suggesting that poor whites should at times be given preference over more privileged blacks.
His ruminations about shifting the balance between race and class in some affirmative action programs raise the possibility that, if elected in November, he might foster a deeper national conversation about an issue that has been fiercely debated for decades. He declined to comment for this article.
During a presidential debate in April, 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.
“We have to think about affirmative action and craft it in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more,” Obama said last week in a question-and-answer session at a convention of minority journalists in Chicago.
While Obama’s biracial background in many ways makes him an ideal bridge between racial sensibilities, the issue remains politically treacherous, especially with race taking an increasingly prominent role in the presidential campaign. Indeed, Obama’s comments have already begun resonating in the long-running dispute over affirmative action, emerging as three states consider ballot initiatives that would ban racial preferences altogether.
“We have to have these conversations about race and class,” said John Payton, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Payton disagreed with Obama’s stance on his daughters, but said he believed that his comments would lead to a thoughtful national discussion.
Still, Payton said, “everybody is nervous that in a political campaign we get reduced to slogans, and the narrowest of slogans, so that you don’t get good discussions.”
In some respects, Obama’s remarks simply reflect a growing consensus that class should play a significant role in affirmative action programs. It already does in states like California and Michigan, where voters have decided that race can no longer be a factor in government hiring or public university admissions. A Supreme Court decision last year, which barred public school districts from assigning students to schools based on their race, has also forced administrators to focus on socioeconomic status in their efforts to integrate segregated public schools.
But the Supreme Court has also said that universities could consider race as they worked to diversify their campuses. Proponents of such programs point out that blacks continue to face discrimination regardless of class or income. Some fear that Obama’s focus on the socioeconomic status of his daughters – as opposed to the diversity of experience and perspective they might bring to predominantly white campuses – may help conservatives in their battle to eliminate race from university admissions and government hiring.
Ward Connerly, an opponent of affirmative action, said he believed that Obama’s remarks would buoy support for his ballot initiatives in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska in November that would ban preferential treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity and sex in government hiring and public education.
Last week, Sen. John McCain, Obama’s Republican rival, announced his support for those measures. He also accused Obama of injecting race into the campaign, citing his remarks that Republicans would try to scare voters by pointing out that “he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.” Obama’s campaign officials said the remark had been misconstrued.
Obama opposes the ballot initiatives, saying they would derail efforts to break down barriers for women and members of minorities. But Connerly said Obama had already helped the cause. “He’s advanced the debate,” Connerly said. “He’s brought it to a new level.”
Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School and an adviser on black issues to Obama, said some of Obama’s supporters were “obviously concerned about whether this is a retreat from a commitment to affirmative action in its classical sense.”
Ogletree, who supports Obama’s presidential bid, said Obama continued to support race-based preferences and understood that race still circumscribed the lives of many Americans. But he and civil rights lawyers like Payton say Obama’s daughters should not be barred from affirmative action programs because they may well encounter racial discrimination, unlike their white peers. Studies suggest that employers often favor white job seekers over black applicants, even when their educational backgrounds and work experiences are nearly identical. Obama’s “daughters are not going to be judged in a colorblind way throughout their lives,” Ogletree said.
Some of Mr. Obama’s supporters said they thought Obama was emphasizing class in part to woo white voters, who typically favor preferences that benefit the poor, surveys show. But his friends and former classmates dispute that, saying his evolving views reflect years of wrestling with the issue of affirmative action, as a matter of policy and in his own personal life.
Obama was raised by his mother, a white single parent who struggled at times to support him and his sister. In his first book, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama described how his friends from the private high school he attended sometimes commented on the lack of food in the family’s refrigerator.
In Chicago, where Obama worked as a community organizer before attending law school, he met white and black steelworkers, secretaries and truck drivers who had lost their jobs. Friends say that as Obama worked with these poor families, he became keenly aware of his own privilege.
Former classmates say Obama chose not to mention his race in his application to Harvard Law School to avoid benefiting from affirmative action, an assertion that his campaign declined to confirm or deny.
“His work was with those who didn’t have much, and they were black, Hispanic and white,” said Gerald Kellman, who hired Obama to help organize poor families in Chicago. “He never had much inclination to use affirmative action as a tool then. He wanted to level the playing field by providing early childhood education programs, access to good schools.”
Even as Obama embraced more traditional liberal views of affirmative action, he was rarely doctrinaire. As a student, Obama sometimes engaged in and sometimes avoided the bitter racial debates that swirled on campus.
As an undergraduate at Occidental College, for instance, he declined to get involved in student efforts to push for affirmative action and minority hiring. At Harvard, he spoke at a rally in support of students who condemned the school administration for failing to offer tenure to any of its professors who were black women.
But he and other editors at the law review were ambivalent when some students argued that women should benefit from the review’s affirmative action policy. (The review’s leadership, which included several women, ultimately decided that the policy should not single out women, saying a dip in their number for one year seemed to be a statistical anomaly.)
“He was clearly unambiguously in favor of affirmative action as a policy matter, but he recognized some of the ambiguities and the nuances in the argument that the most passionate affirmative action supporters often did not,” said Bradford A. Berenson, who served as associate White House counsel under President Bush and worked on the law review with Obama.
Obama was sympathetic to minority students who argued that affirmative action undermined them in the eyes of their white colleagues. But he said he never felt that way at Harvard.
“I have not personally felt stigmatized,” Obama wrote in his letter to the editor in 1990.
That changed after law school.
A federal judge once asked a friend of Obama’s whether he had been “elected on the merits” as law review president, Obama told The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2001. He said the question came up again when he applied for a job as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.
Obama has not described how he felt then. But as a state senator, he spoke with empathy about accomplished minority students at elite universities who sometimes lived “under a cloud they could not erase.”
Over the last few years, Obama has also voiced sympathy for whites who feel resentful of race-based affirmative action and questioned how long such programs need to continue.
Even as he argued that timetables for minority hiring may be necessary where there is evidence of systemic discrimination, he also warned in his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” that “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America.”
It was 2006 then, and Obama was a wealthy senator considering a bid for the presidency. He worried that race-based preferences, while necessary, might undermine efforts at building cross-racial coalitions.
Presaging his recent focus on class, Obama argued that whites were more likely to join blacks in supporting programs that were not racially based.
“An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific programs isn’t just good policy,” Obama said in his book. “It’s good politics.”© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.