Why is Affirmative Action Absent From the Presidential Campaign?
Both Obama and Romney shy from discussion of a policy steeped in race
Are this week’s arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a white girl against affirmative action just another example of things done “in the name of drying up white women’s tears,” as Feministing.com's Chloe Angyal, a Caucasian woman, phrased it during an appearance on MSNBC’s "Melissa Harris Perry" Sunday?
The question considered Wednesday by court justices – whether it's constitutional for a qualified white teenage girl to be rejected by a public university in Texas, seemingly because she was not a black or Latino applicant of equal merit – has little chance of appearing in either campaign's rhetoric. Romney’s “47 percent” controversy notwithstanding, both candidates have cast themselves as men in favor of success for all citizens. A support of preferential treatment for disadvantaged blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and indigenous peoples might betray that appeal.
While Americans have increasingly supported a form of the policy that favors socio-economic diversity, but are beginning to waver on the use of race as a factor, according to relatively recent polling, the Democratic Party doesn’t need to take up affirmative action to win the minority vote and Republicans likely believe their small proportion of minority supporters don’t favor the effort. Still, some voters would like to see the issue of affirmative action integrated into the policy debate.
“The biggest hot button issue of this election is job creation,” said Alvin Grimes, a 27-year-old black law school graduate and communications professional, who attended Wilberforce University for his undergraduate studies. He does not think he was admitted because of his race, though he favors affirmative action as a policy.
“There is empirical evidence to show the positive benefit of affirmative action, not just for blacks but for all minorities,” said Grimes, of New York City. “I would like to see both candidates address affirmative action as an aspect of job creation.”
That’s unlikely, given the candidates’ record. Obama has expressed support for the policy. In 2008, the president told ABC’s George Stephanoplous that he agreed with retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, that affirmative action had a shelf life of less than three decades, and said he didn’t see his daughters, Malia and Sasha, needing to benefit from the policy. In 2003, Romney quietly invalidated Massachusetts’ affirmative action law and replaced it with broader guidelines, angering many civil rights activists, the Associated Press reported. Romney does favor tracking progress in women and minority enrollment and hiring, but not imposed quotas, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Obama enjoys large margins of support among black and Latino voters, according to recent polling. Any foray into racial politics has often drawn the ire of Republicans, who feel they are frequently accused of employing racist rhetoric to fire up base voters. While Obama caught heat for saying unarmed, slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin would have looked like his son if he had one, Vice President Joe Biden's recent suggestion that Republicans wanted to put African Americans "back in chains" precipitated a week-long distraction for the Obama campaign.
Romney and the GOP, on the other hand, tried to use this summer's Republican National Convention to portray itself as an inclusive party with members of all stripes. Black politicians like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mayor Mia Love of Saratoga Springs, Utah, and disillusioned Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, along with Latino leaders like New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio gave primetime speeches championing America as a land of opportunity for people of color. Romney, however, caught heat for joking he would do better in the election if he had a Latino father. (That joke came during the same fundraiser where his infamous "47 percent" remarks were secretly recorded.)
Issues of race haven’t played well for either campaign this election cycle. From promises to crack down on minorities too dependent on food stamps to undying discussions of birth certificates and school records, Obama and Romney surrogates have quickly spun themselves out of inadvertently racial gaffes and controversies.
Whether or not Obama and Romney want discussion of it, legal advocates and activists in favor of preferential admission for underrepresented minority college applicants say affirmative action is helping black and Latino students play catch up with their white peers.
“As many classes at [the University of Texas] have one or zero students of color each semester, these underrepresented students frequently complain of feeling marginalized or unwanted,” reads a statement released by The Advancement Project, announcing the amicus brief it filed in support of the university’s use of a “holistic review policy” that considers the race of the applicant.
Joining several groups gathered outside the Supreme Court for Wednesday’s arguments, the Rev. Al Sharpton and members of his National Action Network rallied in support of a court decision that would leave the policy intact.
"National Action Network and I are vehemently opposed to any decision that will have a negative impact on people of marginalized backgrounds receiving an equal opportunity to higher education within the United States,” Sharpton said in a statement. “This case will have a tremendous impact for future generations and we must stand together to make our voices heard."
American Association for Affirmative Action president Gregory Chambers agreed, saying in a statement: “The nation’s future depends upon all qualified individuals receiving a chance to compete in education, employment and business.”
A 2010 study by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute found that bans on affirmative action at non-diverse colleges “decrease[d] underrepresented minority enrollment and increased white enrollment” while it also “shifted underrepresented minority students from more selective campuses to less selective ones.” However, a study released last week by the Century Foundation suggests public universities can bring diversity to their campuses through race-neutral means. That study cited nine states with racially diverse campus enrollment, achieved without an affirmative action policy.
A February poll by Rasmussen Reports found that only 24 percent of likely voters were in favor of “applying affirmative action policies to college admissions.” A Pew Research Center values survey in 2009 found that 65 percent of Americans disagree with preferential treatment for minorities.