Thursday, September 8, 2011

Barack Obama and affirmative action

I recently stumbled on this quotation in a letter that Barack Obama wrote when he was at Harvard:
I must say, however, that as someone who has undoubtedly benefited from affirmative action programs during my academic career, and as someone who may have benefited from the Law Review's affirmative action policy when I was selected to join the Review last year, I have not personally felt stigmatized either within the broader law school community or as a staff member of the Review.

Three things jumped out at me.

1) Opponents of affirmative action see three possible harms from affirmative action. The most obviously harmed are those who would otherwise get positions that go to the affirmative-action candidates. These people are usually white or Asian. Second are those minority members who could attain the positions without affirmative action. They are the ones that may suffer from being stigmatized. Third are those who get positions from affirmative action but are not really qualified. They are usually helped but can be harmed if they are put into situations in which they are not competitive; the claim is that they might prosper and do better in the long run in a less competitive situation. Since Obama has identified himself as being in the third group, he should not be claiming that he was immune from the harm that is posited to those in the second group.

2) This admission undercuts the often-heard argument that Obama's Ivy League credentials and his position at the Law Review are proof of superior intellect.

3) Obama may be the greatest success story of affirmative action because without affirmative action Obama would not have had the Ivy League credentials that were essential for his election as president.  If Obama is an excellent president, then his presidency validates of the wisdom of affirmative action. I have not seen this argument made proponents of affirmative action, perhaps because of point two above.

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