Obama and Affirmative Action

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.