Obama Doesn't Shrink on Affirmative Action Bans

United States


June 10, 2008

 By DeWayne Wickham

Shortly after Hillary Rodham Clinton suspended her presidential campaign and urged her supporters — especially women — to embrace Barack Obama’s White House bid, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee gave them another reason to rally to his side.

In response to a question I put to him a day earlier, Obama answered that he opposes efforts to pass constitutional amendments this year in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska to ban affirmative action in state contracting and college admissions.

"Sen. Obama believes in a country in which opportunity is available to all Americans, regardless of their race, gender or economic status. That’s why he opposes these ballot initiatives, which would roll back opportunity for millions of Americans and cripple efforts to break down historic barriers to the progress of qualified women and minorities," Candice Tolliver, an Obama campaign spokesperson, told me.

White women and blacks are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action programs.

Courageous action

While Obama has long been on record in support of affirmative action, speaking out against the effort by Ward Connerly, a black California businessman who spearheaded successful campaigns to ban it in California, Michigan and Washington, is an act of political courage.

It comes at a time when Obama is trying to win over working-class whites, many of whom believe affirmative action gains by women and blacks come at their expense. Nothing reflects Obama’s call for a departure from the old political thinking more than his belief that he can address the concerns of disaffected whites without abandoning the interests of minorities and women — the Democrats’ core constituencies.

Race has long been a troublesome issue in U.S. politics. But as far back as July, Obama has talked about finding creative ways to bring together people who often have been on opposite ends of this nation’s racial schism. During an interview 11 months ago, I asked him how he would overcome resistance to funding for anti-poverty programs if he were elected president.

Two-pronged approach

"I don’t think you can do it in isolation. You can’t solve the problem of poverty if you’re not speaking to the larger anxieties that working-class families feel as well," he said. Translation: In order to win widespread support for increased aid to blacks, who are disproportionately poor, he must also make a parallel effort to remedy some of the gnawing problems of middle-class whites.

Instead of viewing the two groups as competing forces, Obama’s strategy is to focus on what links them. Not surprisingly, a day after he went to Virginia — which hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964 — to launch his general election campaign, Obama expressed strong opposition to the anti-affirmative action initiatives. His action couldn’t come at a better time. Civil rights organizations are struggling to raise money to combat Connerly’s campaign, which they managed to derail in Missouri and Oklahoma, where supporters failed to get enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

While the initiative has been put on the ballot in Colorado, neither Arizona nor Nebraska has yet to get enough signatures to submit these constitutional amendments to voters in November. They both face early July deadlines.

By opposing this effort at the same time that he’s reaching out to working-class whites,  Obama is forging a strategy that could deal a fatal blow to the movement Connerly has led for more than a decade. That would be a good thing.

Obama believes America can keep its promise to women and blacks without dashing the hopes of working-class whites. He doesn’t think opportunity guarantees made to one group must come at the expense of another. His is admittedly a new political vision, one that may well propel him into the White House — and help this nation fully live up to its promise.

DeWayne Wickham writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.




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