President Obama and his administration have taken a strong stand in favor of race-based affirmative action this week, even as some Democrats and liberals, including the president himself, have suggested a gradual shift to more class-based instead of racial preferences should happen in the future.
Ahead of a Supreme Court hearing in October on the University of Texas at Austin’s use of race in its undergraduate admissions, the administration filed a brief Monday supporting the university. A white woman who was rejected from the college in 2008 filed suit, arguing the university’s use of race violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The university uses race as part of its”personal achievement index,” which includes other factors such as family income and work experience, generally following guidelines the Supreme Court laid out in 2003 case involving the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program.
In defending the Texas policy, the government, in a brief written by the Department of Justice, argues diversity “is a pressing necessity in a era of intense competition in the global economy and ever evolving worldwide national security threats.” The brief also says it is important for the University of Texas to “train students to become the next generation of Texas leaders by exposing them to the many diverse perspectives and cross-racial interactions that they will encounter in civic life.”
Obama’s embrace of the Texas policy is not surprising, as he has long favored affirmative action. When asked about in 2008, he defended the practice, while at the same time saying, “I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty,” according to the Washington Post. And he noted that his daughters, who he argues have lived a life of privilege, should not benefit from race-based preferences.
The court is not likely to rule on the case until next spring or summer, well after Obama stands for reelection.
But the move is something of a risk and an argument against the notion pushed by some African-American critics that the president is too reluctant to speak or act on issues that disproportionately affect blacks. (It remains unclear if Obama will speak publicly in defense of affirmative action, or if Mitt Romney, an opponent of the practice, will criticize the administration’s decision)
The administration is making its case for affirmative action in the midst of a campaign that has shown a huge demographic divide: blacks and Latinos are among the president’s biggest backers, while he is struggling among white, working-class voters, who are less likely to back racial preferences.
And Obama is embracing affirmative action even as it is appears on its last legs. Sandra Day O’Connor, who was the key swing vote on the Supreme Court to keep affirmative action in place in 2003, has been replaced by the more conservative Samuel Alito, and it appears the court has five justices who are likely to eliminate racial preferences. And some prominent liberal voices have said that increasingly class, not race, is the biggest divider of Americans and the most important challenge in ensuring equality of opportunity.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr