The Race Minefield

This column was written by Stephen F. Hayes.

As Barack Obama strode to the podium after his triumphant victory in the South Carolina primary last month, the crowd gathered to hear him began to chant. "Race doesn't matter! Race doesn't matter!"

Their words echoed a theme often articulated by their candidate, and they seemed to be saying something rather profound about the meaning of Obama's candidacy. These supporters were reacting to the widespread perception that Bill and Hillary Clinton had attempted to use Obama's race to win their state. And that reality, ironically underscored by their chanting, leads us to the exact opposite conclusion about politics in America between now and November.

Race will matter.

In the speech that launched his meteoric rise in national politics, the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama called for a politics of hope, denounced "those who are preparing to divide us," and offered a direct challenge. "I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America - there's the United States of America."

It was a moving speech, filled with hopeful sentiments. But two years later, Senator Barack Obama, with two years' experience in the Senate and his eye on a presidential run, taped a radio ad attacking the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), going out of his way to defend racial preference policies that by their very definition divide Americans into blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians.

The original MCRI, relying heavily on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, read: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." The language of Proposal 2, as it was identified on the ballot, was altered slightly to include the phrase "affirmative action." The effect was the same: Its passage would end the government's practice of categorizing and rewarding citizens on the basis of race.

Obama responded:

  • This is Senator Barack Obama. And I'm asking you to vote no on Proposal 2. We've made great strides in our society towards fairness and opportunity for all people. But whether we like to admit it or not, there's still barriers to women and minorities reaching their full potential. Proposal 2 may sound like a reasonable way to move towards a Michigan that is blind to differences in sex and race but don't be fooled by the reassuring rhetoric. If the initiative becomes law it would wipe out programs that help women and minorities get a good education and jobs. It would hurt initiatives that help women and minorities build their own businesses. And it would eliminate efforts to help our children enter fields such as science, engineering, and mathematics. Proposal 2 closes these doors to many in Michigan and it moves us further away from a country of full opportunity. Proposal 2 is wrong for Michigan and it's wrong for America.

    Race-neutral policies are "wrong for America"? A measure that echoes the 1964 Civil Rights Act is just "reassuring rhetoric"? The same campaign that paid for Obama's ad ran an ad comparing the end of racial preferences to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

    "If you could have prevented 9/11 from ever happening, would you have?" the ad asked. "On November 7th there's a national disaster headed for Michigan, the elimination of affirmative action." Was this the new politics Obama had promised two years earlier? How does he square it with his claim in his stump speeches that "We can't afford the same politics of fear that invokes 9/11 as a way to scare up votes."

    Americans have come to expect these kinds of contradictions from our politicians. But the chief rationale for Obama's candidacy is that he is different, that he will lead a post-partisan, post-ideological, and post-racial America. Not everyone believes it.

    "Barack Obama is a far left guy who issues reassuring rhetoric but beneath it all is just like any other liberal," says Ward Connerly, the California businessman who backed the Michigan initiative after leading victorious efforts in California and Washington. It passed easily, and he is hoping to duplicate that success in five states this coming November: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Connerly, a Republican who supported Rudy Giuliani for president, hopes that McCain will support his initiatives and even run on them as a way to counter Obama's rhetoric. But he knows from experience not to count on it.

    The politics of racial preferences are counterintuitive. Polling consistently shows overwhelming public support for race-neutral policies. A Newsweek poll from last July asked a straightforward question. "Do you think race should be allowed as a factor in making decisions about employment and education, or should race not be allowed as a factor?" Eighty-two percent of those surveyed said race should not be a factor, including 75 percent of nonwhites.

    The numbers vary depending on how the question is posed - support for race-neutral policies drops marginally when voters are asked whether they favor "affirmative action" - but the conclusion remains the same. On this issue, the American public agrees with Barack Obama's words, not his policies.

    And yet Republican politicians have shown a strange reluctance to embrace race neutrality. In 1996, Bob Dole refused for months to endorse California's Proposition 209, as Connerly's California Civil Rights Initiative was called, for fear that he would be seen as using racial preferences as a "wedge issue." (He finally endorsed it in the waning days of his campaign, which had exactly the effect he had sought to avoid.)

    In 1997, Texas governor George W. Bush refused to back a Houston referendum based on the California proposition. In 1998, Florida governor Jeb Bush opposed Connerly's Florida initiative. In 2003, the Bush administration took a split-the-baby position on a Supreme Court case involving admissions policies at the University of Michigan. In 2006, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos refused to back the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which won 58-42 in a down year for Republicans. (The self-funded DeVos lost to incumbent Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, 56-42.)

    You can add John McCain to this list. In 1998, as McCain began planning for his presidential bid two years later, Arizona state senator Scott Bundgaard was pushing for a measure similar to Proposition 209. McCain, in a speech to Arizona Hispanic leaders, called such measures "divisive." He did not directly oppose Bundgaard's initiative, but news reports at the time claimed that McCain told others in the state legislature that he thought such a measure would be counterproductive. (That same year, McCain joined 14 other Republicans and 43 Democrats to vote in favor of a Department of Transportation set-aside requiring that 10 percent of highway contracts go to minority-owned businesses. Again, news reports suggested that McCain warned his colleagues about appearing divisive.)