Would Obama Support Class-based Affirmative Action?

by Noam Scheiber | May 14, 2008

I think Matt Yglesias is interpreting me slightly too pessimistically on this subject. He writes:

Richard Kahlenberg observes that it would be politically savvy of Barack Obama to embrace a shift toward class-based affirmative action and that the logic of several things his said over the years seems to point in this direction. I tend to think so as well, and have been hopeful that this might happen at some point, but then I read this Noam Scheiber article focused on another topic and saw this graf:

The run-up to South Carolina was rife with talk that post-racial Obama was morphing into a decidedly pre-post-racial candidate. To reverse the slide, blogger Mickey Kaus suggested he give a speech embracing class- rather than race-based affirmative action, something Obama had flirted with in the past. Kaus had a point: The atmospherics would have been irresistible to ambivalent whites. I pushed a milder form of the idea on my own blog. Not long after, I got a response from an Obama adviser: Never gonna happen. Urging Sister Souljah politicking on him was the surest way to provoke a scowl.

Well that's that. But in the hopes of persuading people otherwise I wouldn't really see this as "Sister Souljah politicking." To me, the defining feature of the S.S. stunt was that, on the merits, it was silly. The point was just to show that Bill Clinton was picking a fight with black people which proved he wasn't one of those nasty ol' liberals. But shifting from the current system of affirmative action to one with a firmer grounded in actual socioeconomic disadvantage would, especially paired to a broader critique of other dimensions of privilege (legacy admissions, etc.), be the right thing to do on the merits.

The adviser and I didn't talk about this at length, so I could be off the mark, but my sense is that Obama might come out in favor of class-based affirmative action at some point. He just wouldn't do it as a direct response to a sudden political problem--like white people worrying that he's "too black" after South Carolina, or whatever. I got the sense that was the Sister Souljah dimension the aide was talking about. Not that he wouldn't propose something he actually believes in because there might be a political upside to it, or because someone somewhere might view it cynically.

I suspect the source of confusion here is the phrase "never gonna happen." By which I meant to convey, "he'd never do something so cynical in that context," but which could easily be interpreted as, "he'd never come out in favor of class-based affirmative action." Apologies for the imprecision there.

--Noam Scheiber 

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