The future of affirmative action

SAN DIEGO — Did the hot-button issues of affirmative action and racial preferences come up in this election? It depends where you look.

Voters in Nebraska and Colorado weighed in on ballot initiatives to ban racial preferences. Those in Nebraska voted “yes” on the ban, following the lead of California, Washington and Michigan, which had approved similar initiatives. Those in Colorado voted “no,” making it the first state in the country to reject such a measure.

Even so, the topic of racial preferences didn’t surface much during the main event: the presidential campaign. Nor did the softer concept of affirmative action, which need not be a hard preference of one aspirant over another. It could simply mean government, colleges or industries considering an applicant’s race as one factor among many.

There were a couple of sightings.

During a Democratic debate in April, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reminded Barack Obama that he had suggested his own daughters shouldn’t benefit from affirmative action since they’re not disadvantaged. Stephanopoulos asked Obama how he would change those policies so that affluent African-Americans aren’t given advantages over less-affluent whites.

Obama said that his priority would be “providing ladders of opportunity” and making sure “every child in America has a decent shot in pursuing their dreams.” He also said that he supported affirmative action as “a means of overcoming both historic and potentially current discrimination.”

In July, during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” John McCain was asked by Stephanopoulos if he supported an initiative to end racial preferences that, at the time, appeared headed for the ballot in his home state of Arizona.

McCain fired off a sound bite about how he supported the proposed initiative because he did not “believe in quotas.” Ultimately, his point was moot. Supporters failed to get enough signatures to put the measure to a vote.

But, curiously, it’s only now that the election is over that the topic of affirmative action is taking center stage in a way that is interesting but not helpful. Some Americans suggest that the election of Obama should mean the end of the program.

In fact, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer recently asked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin if, given Obama’s victory, it was “time to get rid of affirmative action in our country.”

Palin said she believed in “equal opportunity for everyone” but that — as long as every American is treated equally — there are probably “some specific policies that I’m sure … we can move beyond.” She also said that she was very proud of America for the “progress our nation has made in not allowing race to be … a prohibitive factor in an election” and that she was happy to see what Obama accomplished not just for himself “but also for our nation (and) for our children.”

Frankly, the answer was much better than the question. This idea that the election of Barack Obama should be the death knell for affirmative action is absurd. One thing has nothing to do with the other. That kind of thinking starts with the epidemic of Americans patting themselves on the back for being enlightened enough to elect an African-American president.

The best argument for affirmative action is that it strengthens institutions by fostering diversity and recruiting people with different experiences. But if you think that Obama’s election justifies ending such policies, you probably think of affirmative action as compensation for past injustices or some necessary evil to be tolerated until we realize Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of living in a society where people are judged by character and not skin color. But wait, people ask, isn’t that what happened when Obama was elected president?

Yes, that is what happened — for Barack Obama. But this doesn’t mean that, with the election of America’s first

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