Race-Based Affirmation Action Remains Necessary

Following the recent results in the West Virginia primary, we should be well aware of the continuing significance of race and racism in U.S. society. Exit polling (such as at CNN) shows that a significant number of whites who voted there said that race played a role in their decision. This continuing significance is not limited to politics, but also remains salient in other areas of social life, including employment and college/university admissions. (photo credit)

In the last debate on April 16th, Barack Obama made some comments on affirmative action (followed with some more by Hillary Clinton) in which he seemed to suggest his support for ending race-based  admissions policies at selective colleges and universities, replacing them with class-based policies. In a recent blog post, Kahlenberg argues that Obama should continue in this vein, that it will help him win over the support of the so-called “Reagan Democrats” (a group of voters who, as recent polls have shown in their head-to-head match-ups with McCain, either of these Democrats would lose in the general election anyway). As he did in his book from 1996, Kahlenberg reiterates in the blog that class-based affirmative action “would be colorblind but not blind to history” and “reinforce the common interests of working-class voters,” thereby assisting Obama in his pursuit of the White House.

Unfortunately Kahlenberg and other proponents of setting the sun on race-based affirmative action fail to recognize the legacy of white racism and the continuing impact of the white racial frame in U.S. society. One simple reason of this is the fact that affirmative action benefits other groups, including veterans, persons with disabilities, and women, yet the focus is on race. As pointed by Bowen and Bok, the reality is that very few students of color benefit from race-sensitive admissions policies at selective colleges and universities, so what we need is more transparency on what exactly affirmative action is, rather than mischaracterize what it does.

Kahlenberg and others also fail to account for exactly WHY we have  race-based affirmative action policies to begin with, and argue that our society today is colorblind so we should end these policies. As a variety of studies (here and here and here) have documented, and along with the results from the primary Tuesday night, U.S. society is far from colorblind. Some states have already moved in the direction Kahlenberg has wished for, and the results haven’t been promising: following the passage of Prop 209 in California, for example, black enrollment at UCLA has dropped considerably. A decline in black enrollment has also commenced at the University of Texas at Austin, following then-Governor Bush’s “Texas 10 percent Plan”, as well as brother Jeb’s similar “One Florida Plan” led to a decline in black enrollment at the University of Florida (though through recruitment efforts, black enrollment rebounded). One reason why this has happened is the fact that the majority of poor people are white in this country.

We need to understand why race-based affirmative action remains necessary in dealing with racial inequality and misunderstanding. As Bowen and Bok point out, whites need contact with students of color in order to prepare for interactions within an increasingly globalized society.

And finally, as Kahlenberg and Barack Obama (at least based on his recent statements on this issue) fail to realize is that Barack’s daughters may indeed be in a privileged position in terms of socioeconomic status. However, they remain black in U.S. society, and race can operate independently. For example, research has found that job applicants with “white-sounding names” such as Greg were 50 percent more likely to receive called for interviews than applicants with “black-sounding names” such as Jamal. In addition to future employers, will Barack’s daughters be viewed any differently from police officers, judges, teachers, or salespeople because of their more favorable socioeconomic status? Obama shouldn’t bother to pander to Reagan Democrats on this issue, since (1) they largely won’t vote for him anyway; and (2) it is bad policy.

~ John D. Foster, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Social & Behavioral Sciences
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff

Pat Buchanan’s Racial Analysis of “Us” and “Them”

Buchanan, building on his “success” with A Brief for Whitey, addressed the polling results following the West Virginia primary a couple of nights ago on Chris Matthews’ show, “Hardball,” on MSNBC (photo from here). Buchanan had what some are calling a “paranoid racial meltdown” (link to the video). Buchanan, in his characteristically pugilistic style, charges Chris Matthews with being racially biased against white voters in his assessment of the polling data, then Buchanan asks Matthews:

“Did you ask the same question of the 92% of Black women who voted for Barack Obama in Philadelphia?”

Chris Matthews responds:

“Sure, they ask the same questions of everybody. These exit polls are conducted on a random basis. They are not conducted based on your ethnic profile.”

Buchanan: “I know they are.”

Matthews: “They’re based on the random nature of all polling to try to discern the truth, to find out what people are voting on.”

And, to Matthews fairly reasoned and moderately accurate explanation of random sampling, Buchanan responds with this analysis:

“Well, Chris, what were they voting on, what were the African American community in Philadelphia voting on that gave him 90% if not the fact that Barack Obama was one of them. West Virginia, Hilary was one of us. That’s the same thing. But West Virginia gets trashed, and Philadelphia’s wonderful.” [emphasis added]

While Pat Buchanan racial analysis of “us” (white people) and “them” (black people) is an excellent example of the white racial frame in operation, it’s also just plain wrong, as the JedReport points out:

“But the real truth is that Pat Buchanan is completely wrong: among voters who said race was an important factor in deciding their vote, Hillary Clinton has won more votes than Barack Obama. ” [emphasis in the original]

The JedReport goes on to point out that “Among voters who said race was important in the decision, Clinton won roughly 100,000 more votes than Obama,” also a counter to Buchanan’s “us” vs. “them” tirade. I am, once again, astonished that this man has a highly-paid position as a talking head at MSNBC. I’m also quite sure that this speaks as much to my own naïveté as it does to the pervasiveness of the white racial frame.

Addendum by Joe (May 16, 2008): We can note too that Patrick Buchanan is a former U.S.  presidential candidate (several times) and has in the past asserted that “our Judeo‑Christian values are going to be preserved and our Western heritage is going to be handed down to future generations and not dumped on some landfill called multiculturalism.”[i] For him the “western heritage” here is white European, as he has made clear in another comment about immigration: “If we had to take a million immigrants in, say, Zulus next year or Englishmen, and put them in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate and would cause less problems for the people of Virginia? There is nothing wrong with us sitting down and arguing that issue that we are a European country, English‑speaking country.”[ii]

Again, the U.S. is envisioned as fundamentally a white European country, and Zulu immigrants, who are black Africans, are seen as much less capable of assimilating than some English immigrants. Yet, in his racist framing of the world, Buchanan neglects the fact that African Americans as a group have been in North America longer than most European American groups, and that the state of Virginia has been home to a great many African Americans longer than it has been for most white-ethnic Virginians. Certainly, Buchanan’s group, Irish Catholics, came to North America well after African Americans, who had been here for two centuries when the Irish Catholics came.


[i] Quoted in Clarence Page, “U.S. Media Should Stop Abetting Intolerance,” Toronto Star (December 27, 1991): p. A27.


[ii] Quoted in John Dillin, “Immigration Joins List of ‘92 Issues,” Christian Science Monitor (December 17, 1991): 6.