Obama's Potential Game-changer

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Mickey Kaus sees Obama getting straight-jacketed as "the black candidate" and offers the following advice:

[I]t's hard to see an easy way out of it for Obama, at least before the wave of primaries and caucuses on Feb. 5. He could try to make Hillary the pet candidate of Latinos the way he's being cast as the pet candidate of blacks--but that would require a shift to the right on immigrant legalization that he doesn't seem willing to make. (I hope I'm wrong about that.)

The more obvious move is to find a Sister Souljah--after Saturday--to stiff arm. The most promising candidate is not a person, but an idea: race-based affirmative action. Obama has already made noises about shifting to a class-based, race-blind system of preferences. What if he made that explicit? Wouldn't that shock hostile white voters into taking a second look at his candidacy? He'd renew his image as trans-race leader (and healer). The howls of criticism from the conventional civil-rights establishment--they'd flood the cable shows--would provide him with an army of Souljahs to hold off. If anyone noticed Hillary in the ensuing fuss, it would be to put her on the spot--she'd be the one defending mend-it-don't-end-it civil rights orthodoxy.

The Latino tack seems much too cynical to me--and, in any case, highly unlikely to work. But class-based affirmative action holds some promise. The obvious criticism is that it's also too cynical. But a lot of serious wonks consider it a way to fulfill the mandate of affirmative action in a less polarizing way--in fact, some believe it's a superior approach even if you set aside the polarization question.* And Mickey's right, the logic of class-based affirmative action is pretty consistent with some of Obama's previous reflections.

For what it's worth, Obama has flirted with some hard truths on race of late. He talked a bit about absentee black fathers in the Nevada debate last week. And he chided the black community for its occasional dalliances with anti-Semitism, homophobia, and xenophobia in his speech honoring Martin Luther King. He certainly seems to be groping toward something larger here. It wouldn't shock me if he eventually went with that impulse.  

*My own feeling is that we'll continue to have a serious race problem as long as African Americans are under-represented in it elite institutions like top universities, top graduate and professional schools, Fortune 500 companies, elite media outlets, etc. (I think sociologist Orlando Patterson has made the most persuasive version of this argument.) It's not at all clear that class-based affirmative action would fix this. But reasonable people can disagree about it. 

--Noam Scheiber

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