Googling, I find "Delicate Obama Path on Class and Race Preferences," by Rachel L. Swarns, which I glossed over when came out 3 days ago.
Why didn't I pay more attention to this? Something about that headline? Something about the first few paragraphs?
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 Mr. Obama, then the first black president of The Harvard Law Review, decided to take a stand.I read about this far the other day. My impression was that Obama, like most students of that era, supported affirmative action — it's what all the good people do — and knew he'd benefited from it. And now, he's refurbishing his position to serve his political ends. The article goes on to talk about his well-known concessions about how perhaps affluent black kids like his own should not get in on the affirmative action. Yawn. [CORRECTED to read "should not get in on..." A typo.]
Mr. 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.
Mr. Obama, a Democrat, 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 United States Senate. But in his 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.
But keep reading — past many paragraphs:
Former classmates say Mr. 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.I don't remember reading that before. This is important. How would former classmates know this? He would have to have talked about it. They may be misrembering or misreporting what they heard from him (or heard second-hand), but if not, we know 2 things: 1. He declined to show his race on his application, and 2. He chose to talk about that with other students.
Actually, we don't really know #1, because: 1. He might have misremembered or misreported how he filled out his application, and 2. One could decline to answer the specific question about race on the application form but still reveal one's race in the personal essay. I would imagine that Obama's essay explained his unusual parentage and his story of life in diverse places dealing with all sorts of people. That is, I think that the Admissions Committee would have seen strong diversity factors in his application even if he declined to check a what's-your-race box and that they'd figure out that he would serve the school's interest in having darker faces among all the white faces in the classroom. In fact, I'm guessing the campaign doesn't want to talk about this point because of this complexity.
Obama may well have believed that it wasn't right for him, a son of a Kenyan man and a white American woman, to apply for benefits that were designed for the descendants of American slaves, and for that reason, declined to check the race box. But it's possible that Obama chose to hide his race on his law school application because he actually opposed affirmative action.
That he voiced his support for it when he was in law school may not mean that much, because it is so extremely common for law students to say nice things about affirmative action in order to get along with others and to be thought well of. And it's not surprising that as the president of Harvard Law Review, he would compliment his staff and not disrespect the individuals who got their places by affirmative action.
“His work was with those who didn’t have much, and they were black, Hispanic and white,” said Gerald Kellman, who hired Mr. 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.”There's some resonance with what Clarence Thomas has said:
Even as Mr. Obama embraced more traditional liberal views of affirmative action, he was rarely doctrinaire. As a student, Mr. Obama sometimes engaged in and sometimes avoided the bitter racial debates 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....
“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 Mr. Obama.
Mr. 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,” Mr. Obama wrote in his letter to the editor in 1990.
That changed after law school.
A federal judge once asked a friend of Mr. Obama’s whether he had been “elected on the merits” as law review president, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.”
But at Yale, Thomas sensed he was being treated differently by teachers and fellow students. The law school had a program that set aside a certain number of slots for minority students.Of course, as a Democratic politician, Barack Obama would never state his doubts about affirmative action in such a vividly harsh way — even if he thought exactly the same thing.
"I honestly, honestly believed that Yale thought that having a kid who came from working people in the South, who had grown up through segregation, that this kid who had prospered, who had done well every single place he'd ever been, whether an all-white school, all-black school, he's always done well. He will do well here. And it will benefit both him and Yale," Thomas says. "That's what I thought. Well, that isn't what it was converted to."
"It was converted to, 'Well, you're here because you're black,'" Thomas explains.
Thomas did well at Yale, graduating somewhere in the middle of his class, but he says it was the first time anybody had tried to put him in a box because of his race, and whatever benefits he accrued from being there were tarnished when it came time to graduate.
"You know, I was in debt. I needed a job. And I couldn’t get a job," Thomas says.
"Not even with a Yale law degree?" [Steve] Kroft asks.
"I couldn’t get a job. And I just saw the discounting of my degree happen before my eyes," Thomas says.
Asked why he thinks that is, Thomas says, "That degree meant one thing for whites and another thing for blacks…it was discounted."
"You write in the book that your Yale degree was worth 15 cents," Kroft remarks.
"Well, you know Steve, I have still a 15 cents sticker on the frame that my law degree is in," Thomas says. "It's tainted. So I just leave it in the basement."
What does Barack Obama really think about affirmative action?
The fact is we don't know.
But we don't know a lot of things about Barack Obama.