[NOTE: This post has been UPDATED TWICE]
Barack Obama won praise from David Yepsen, the dean of Iowa political writers, for his stellar performance at the recent high-profile Jefferson-Jackson Dinner of the Iowa Democratic Party.
Among other things,
He said “Not answering questions because we’re afraid our answers just won’t be popular just won’t do it….”
He said “telling Americans what they think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won’t do it.” Translation: Obama is often inclined to say things party interest groups don’t want to hear – like the need for school reform, merit pay, more efficient cars or money to rebuild the military. She [Clinton] panders or is mushy.
By the standard Obama laid down in his JJ Day address, however, Obama failed miserably in a recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education in which his responses were a textbook model of waffling obfuscation:
Q. You have called yourself a firm believer in affirmative action. How big a role should race play in college-admissions decisions, and why? How much should socioeconomic status factor in to those decisions, and why?
A. Diversity enriches education. As America grows more diverse, it is essential that students be exposed to diversity in all its forms and learn how to effectively communicate, collaborate, and compete with people of all backgrounds.
Some measures traditionally used to determine college admissions—such as college entrance exam scores—might not necessarily be the best predictors of college success, placing some very talented students at a disadvantage.
One of this year’s MacArthur awardees—the “genius” awards—is an innovator named Deborah Bial. She proposed a model to identify promising students from disadvantaged urban backgrounds, using an alternative set of qualities as predictors of success in college.
Candidates for this program are selected using a process based on qualities such as leadership, motivation, teamwork, and ability to effectively communicate. The students that are selected form a “posse,” and are provided with extra supports, and end up graduating form selective colleges with a very high success rate.
This shows the validity of using less-recognized skills as indicators of likely educational success. And this would probably be considered affirmative action, by specifically choosing students from less-advantaged backgrounds. But maybe it just shows that the playing ground, using traditional metrics for college admission, is unacceptably uneven.
When properly structured, affirmative action programs can open up opportunities to qualified minorities—and can do so without diminishing opportunities for white students. Given the dearth of black and Latino Ph.D. candidates in mathematics and the sciences, for example, a scholarship program for minorities interested in getting advanced degrees in these fields won’t keep white students out of such programs but can broaden the pool of talent that we need to prosper in the new economy.
We shouldn’t ignore that race continues to matter: To suggest that our racial attitudes play no part in the socioeconomic disparities that we often observe turns a blind eye to both our history and our experience—and relieves us of the responsibility to make things right.
The very question suggests this is an either/or thing—either you want to increase opportunities for racial minorities or you want to increase opportunities for poor students of all races. I reject this. We can—and should—do both.
We should work to build an America where the qualified white student from rural South Carolina who worked hard to beat the odds and the qualified black student from the South Side of Chicago who did the same can attend classes together, learn from each other, teach their classmates a thing or two and vice versa, and together go off into the world prepared for a diverse workforce.
Q. On the same subject, you said in an ABC interview that your daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as people who are “pretty advantaged.” What did you mean by that? Should an applicant’s race play a role in whether he or she is admitted to a college if that person is from a middle- or upper-income background? Please explain.
A. My daughters are the children of a very talented and accomplished woman, and of a U.S. Senator. They are growing up in a neighborhood which provides the benefits of one of our nation’s great universities. They attend an excellent school. That seems pretty advantaged to me.
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 [as we can] to help build this country.
O.K., go back and re-read the above, and then take the following quiz:
- Does Obama believe it is wrong to burden some and benefit others because of their race? Always? Usually? Sometimes? Never?
- Are “qualities such as leadership, motivation, teamwork, and ability to effectively communicate” found primarily among disadvantaged blacks? If race were not a factor, would placing more weight on those qualities increase the proportion of blacks who are admitted to selective colleges?
- How can affirmative action programs that treat race in a preferential manner be “properly structured” so that they give additional opportunities to blacks without “without diminishing opportunities for white [or Asian] students”?
- What is the nature of the “diversity” provided by blacks and Latinos in math and science, and why is it important?
- How would “a scholarship program for minorities interested in getting advanced degrees in these fields … broaden the pool of talent that we need to prosper in the new economy” more than a scholarship program that was not racially restrictive? If such a program were racially restrictive, why would it not “keep white [and Asian] students out of such programs” who could not attend without a scholarship?
- Does Obama believe [as I’ve already asked, here and here] that all minority applicants who, like his daughters, “are pretty advantaged” should receive no preferential treatment?
- Would Obama award preferences to those “who are still struggling, … who are in the middle class [but] may be first-generation as opposed to fifth- or sixth-generation college attendees” only if they are “African-American kids,” or would he “take into account” those facts equally for all applicants, regardless of their race?
- In short, does Obama support or oppose preferences based on race? If he opposes them, why did he make ads opposing their abolition in Michigan?
Done? Good. Now you’ll have to grade your own quizzes, since I don’t know the correct answers.
UPDATE [13 Nov.]
A long and glowing profile of Obama in the Chronicle of Higher Education states that he has been “a consistent supporter of affirmative action.”
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama has reiterated his support for colleges’ use of racial preferences in admissions. But, he says, colleges should also expand educational opportunities among financially needy students of all ethnicities.
“To suggest that our racial attitudes play no part in the socioeconomic disparities that we often observe turns a blind eye to both our history and our experience, and relieves us of the responsibility to make things right,” Mr. Obama wrote via e-mail.
At the same time, he added, “we should work to build an America where the qualified white student from rural South Carolina who worked hard to beat the odds, and the qualified black student from the South Side of Chicago who did the same, can attend classes together, learn from each other, teach their classmates a thing or two and vice versa, and together go off into the world prepared for a diverse work force.”
Thus what Obama is saying, or seems to be saying, is that preference should be given to all college applicants who are “financially needy” and to all applicants who are black, except perhaps his own daughters. The only difference I can see between him and all other preferentialists is that they would extend preferences to his daughters as well (as evidenced by the comments of the Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago that I quoted here).
UPDATE [13 Nov.]
Roger Clegg also has a few choice comments about Obama’s interview, here.