Affirmative Action -- A Minefield in the Making?

Washington Matters

Affirmative Action -- A Minefield in the Making?

It's not the hot button issue of the campaign today, but wait. If he wins the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama may have to tread carefully in the debate over affirmative action that will come in the fall. 

My colleague Jon Frandsen recently blogged here that the gun control issue could light up the campaign debate in the general election in ways it hasn't so far. I agree. It's usually a campaign perennial and it has hardly been a topic yet. That may change after the Supreme Court decides a case this summer on Washington, D.C.'s district-wide handgun ban.

Another sleeper issue perhaps for not much longer is affirmative action. Barack Obama has steered mostly clear of it -- it's hardly ever in a stump speech and wasn't central in his recent speech on race. He knows the issue can stir acrimony and division on both sides and probably not to his benefit. The affirmative action issue was hinted at only indirectly with the firestorm over former Hillary Clinton fundraiser Geraldine Ferraro's comments that Obama's skin color may be unfairly benefitting him. But that was a one-week story for the most part. 

Obama is on record being a strong supporter of race-based affirmative action for college admissions and public hiring, and he wants a larger effort on class-based affirmative action to help low-income whites and blacks alike -- but he is vague on specifics. He also says possibly less affirmative action protection is needed for wealthier blacks. But it's far from being a central plank of his candidacy.


Recently, though, supporters of banning racial preferences, including many Republicans, are pointing to Obama's success with white voters as an argument that affirmative action may have run its course and racial preferences should be ended. Wade Connerly, a black conservative activist who pioneered efforts to end racial preferences in California, says he will use Obama's national ascent to help propel anti-affirmative action ballot initiatives in five states this fall.

Supporters of affirmative action see it the other way around entirely, saying Obama's success may be a sign that affirmative action policies are actually working and helping create better race relations and diversity. A good rundown of Connerly's and other opinons on Obama and affirmative action, pro and con, was recently published by the Boston Globe. GOP-nominee-in-waiting John McCain says he supports federal affirmative action programs but not if they include direct or indirect quotas.

It's likely to be a debate in the fall, and it may not be the easiest one for Obama to embrace, especially since his campaign attempts to run what some might call a historic "post-race" race, which may be as noble as it is hard.