Is Obama an 'affirmative action president'?

This week, Donald Trump — real estate mogul, reality show star, possible presidential contender and perpetual attention seeker — stirred the pot of racial politics when he suggested that President Obama was not qualified for the Ivy League.

“I heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?” Trump told the Associated Press, clearly lacking evidence to support his view. “I’m thinking about it, I’m certainly looking into it. Let him show his records.”

Pat Buchanan took it even further. On Chris Matthews’ Hardball program, the firebrand conservative commentator, not known for his sensitivity towards minorities, said that affirmative action was the only reason Obama was able to get into Harvard University. “He’s probably affirmative action all the way,” Buchanan said, also asking Matthews, “What I want to know is why you don’t want to see the test scores? Why don’t you want to see any of these things? You’re supposed to be a journalist — the people’s right to know!”

This begs the question: Is Obama an “affirmative action president”?

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Like other conservative commentators, Buchanan has doubted the achievements of people of color for quite some time. Buchanan, who once proclaimed that white men built this country, called Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize the “affirmative action Nobel.” In 2009, Buchanan said of the Nobel committee, “They have reinforced the impression that Obama is someone who is forever being given prizes — Ivy League scholarships, law review editorships, prime-time speaking slots at national conventions — he did not earn.” And he called Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor a “lightweight” and an affirmative action beneficiary who thinks she makes better decisions than white men.

Demanding that the president produce his college transcript, like demanding that he show his birth certificate, is an absurdity. Obama graduated from Columbia University in 1983 with a degree in political science after he transferred from Occidental College in California. He later earned his law degree in 1991 from Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude and was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. The man is brilliant, and I believe the president could demolish Donald Trump or Pat Buchanan in any intellectual contest, and it wouldn’t even be a close race.

Now as someone who attended a few Ivy League schools myself — Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School — I am aware that people such as Pat Buchanan believe that I did not deserve simply because I am black. But that is not my concern.

There was a time when African-Americans and other groups were not admitted into the Ivies and other institutions of higher education — not because they weren’t qualified, but because they lacked the right complexion and the right pedigree, and were not WASP-y men. Jewish Americans were subjected to quotas limiting their numbers in academic admissions, while blacks often were excluded as a matter of official university policy.

But the civil rights movement opened up the doors of opportunity, with martyrs created in the process. Programs of diversity and inclusion such as affirmative action helped to break apart the old boys’ network beginning in the 1960s, bringing in more women, people of color, and others who had been excluded in the past. That includes Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii to a single white mother on food stamps, and an absentee father from Kenya. In that regard, President Obama is an affirmative action president. No one is entitled to attend a particular college as a right, and surely many competitive schools reject far more qualified candidates than there are seats to fill. The goal for admissions committees should be to assemble a class of qualified and diverse students. And some students are admitted because they are legacies — meaning a family member graduated from the university and maybe even donated a lot of money — or because of their athletic prowess or some other special talent.

During his presidency, no one ever questioned whether George W. Bush was qualified to attend Yale or Harvard Business School. Yet, he was a C student and an individual with no personal achievements other than his last name. Generations of Bushes had attended Yale, which is why W was admitted. It is assumed that he, like others before him, deserved it. White privilege is normalized in a society where a number of people still believe that an African-American does not deserve to attend an Ivy League school, much less become leader of the free world. Now that he is president, they must delegitimize him by claiming he is not a citizen, and that he was a bad student.

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One can only conclude that Pat Buchanan is jealous of President Obama, who started from the bottom and achieved great things with access to a privileged education. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, who attended the University of Pennsylvania, knows how difficult life would have been had his wealthy father not been around to provide him with his silver spoon.

On The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, Tavis Smiley said that Donald Trump is playing to the racist elements within the Tea Party in this country, reflecting the lack of civility in America. And he is right. “I said over a year ago that this presidential race was going to be the ugliest, the nastiest, the most divisive and the most racist in the history of this republic. I did not know that race to the bottom would begin so quickly,” Smiley said. “The evidence was pretty clear that they would do anything and say anything in order to make sure that he [Obama] does not get re-elected.”

These opening salvos in the 2012 campaign may portend an election season of sideshow distractions. Failing to attack Obama on substantive policy matters, and still not creating jobs as they promised, his adversaries will force him to waste time defending himself — insisting he went to Columbia and Harvard based on merit, and perhaps even that he wrote his book himself.