The latest installment of The Week in Blog is up at Bloggingheads.tv, where Conn Carroll and I discuss Obama's historic speech, McCain's ties to controversial pastors and McCain's foreign policy ignorance. Click here to watch.
UPDATE: I said on bloggingheads.tv that we didn't exactly know where Obama stood on affirmative action. Sometimes I (and I think others) forget that Obama wrote a little book about where he stands on things.
In "The Audacity of Hope," he discusses not only his view of affirmative action, but what else needs to be done to close racial gaps. From pg. 244-7 (emphasis added):
Affirmative action programs, when properly structured, can open up opportunities otherwise closed to qualified minorities without diminishing opportunities for white students. Given the dearth of black and Latino Ph.D. candidates in mathematics and the physical sciences, for example, a modest scholarship program of minorities interested in getting advanced degrees in these fields (a recent target of a Justice Department inquiry) won't keep white students out of such programs, but can broaden the pool of talent that America will need for all of us to prosper in a technology-based economy. Moreover, as a lawyer who's worked on civil rights cases, I can say that where there's strong evidence of prolonged and systematic discrimination by large corporations, trade unions, or branches of municipal government, goals and timetables for minority hiring may be the only meaningful remedy available.
Many Americans disagree with me on this as a matter of principle, arguing that our institutions should never take race into account, even if it is to help victims of past discrimination. Fair enough--I understand their arguments, and don't expect the debate to be settled anytime soon. But that shouldn't stop us from at least making sure that when two equally qualified--one minority and one white--apply for a job, house, or loan, and the white person is consistently preferred, then the government, through its prosecutors and through its courts, should step in to make things right.
We should also agree that the responsibility to close the gap can't come from government alone; minorities, individually and collectively, have responsibilities as well. Many of the social or cultural factors that negatively affect black people, for example, simply mirror in exaggerated form problems that afflict America as a whole: too much television (the average black household has the television on more than eleven hours per day), too much consumption of poisons (blacks smoke more and eat more fast food), and a lack of emphasis on educational achievement.
Then there's the collapse of the two-parent black household, a phenomenon that is occurring at such an alarming rate when compared to the rest of American society that what was once a difference in degree has become a difference in kind, a phenomenon that reflects a casualness toward sex and child rearing among black men that renders black children more vulnerable--and for which there is simply no excuse.
Taken together, these factors impede progress. Moreover, although government action can help change behavior (encouraging supermarket chains with fresh produce to locate in black neighborhoods, to take just one small example, would go a long way toward changing people's eating habits), a transformation in attitudes has to begin in the home, and in neighborhoods, and in places of worship. Community-based institutions, particularly the historically black church, have to help families reinvigorate in young people a reverence for educational achievement, encourage healthier lifestyles, and reenergize traditional social norms surrounding the joys and obligations of fatherhood.
Ultimately, though, the most important tool to close the gap between minority and white workers may have little to do with race at all. These days, what ails working-class and middle-class blacks and Latinos is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts: downsizing, outsourcing, automation, wage stagnation, the dismantling of employer-based health-care and pension plans, and schools that fail to teach young people the skills they need to compete in a global economy. ... And what would help minority workers are the same things that would help white workers: the opportunity to earn a living wage, the education and training that lead to such jobs, labor laws and tax laws that restore some balance to the distribution of the nation's wealth, and health-care, child care, and retirement systems that working people can count on.
Even as we continue to defend affirmative action as a useful, if limited, tool to expand opportunity to underrepresented minorities, we should consider spending a lot more of our political capital convincing America to make the investments needed to ensure that all children perform at grade level and graduate from high school--a goal that, if met, would do more than affirmative action to help those black and Latino children who need it most. Similarly we should support targeted programs to eliminate existing health disparities between minorities and whites ... but a plan for universal health-care coverage would do more to eliminate health disparities between whites and minorities than any race-specific programs we might design.