Following a campaign to get President Obama to release his birth certificate, Donald Trump shifted the issue to release of Obama’s college transcripts. In a veiled reference to affirmative action, Trump told the Associated Press, “I’ve heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia, and then to Harvard?” He challenged, “Let him show his records.”
Many supporters of the president understandably took this accusation—on top of the “birther” allegations—as yet another insult of America’s first black president. Some suggested it was outrageous—even racist—to suggest that Obama’s transfer from Occidental College to Columbia University and his admission to Harvard Law School wasn’t strictly based on merit.
Bob Schieffer of CBS News, for example, objected to Trump’s assertion that “We need to look at his grades and see if he was a good enough student to get into Harvard Law School. That’s just code for saying he got into law school because he’s black. This is an ugly strain of racism that’s running through this whole thing.” DeWayne Wickham, likewise, wrote in USA Today, “If his factless assault on Obama’s citizenship isn’t proof enough of Trump’s racism, then his attempt to brand the president as the undeserving beneficiary of affirmative action in higher education—an old saw of modern-day bigots—should remove all doubt.”
Trump lost any credibility he had when he joined the “birther” movement, but I found the response to Trump’s comments on affirmative action troubling. Isn’t it inconsistent for those who are strong supporters of affirmative action—who say it would be a disaster to get rid of racial preferences—to also suggest that Obama could not possibly have benefited in college and law-school admissions from the fact that he is black?
The truth is that Barack Obama may well have benefited from affirmative action—and that, if he did, he stands as a great symbol of the policy’s success. According to research by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose, who support race-based affirmative action, the policy triples the number of African-American and Latino students at most selective 146 colleges and universities compared with the proportion who would be admitted under a system of admissions based on grades and test scores. That is, roughly two-thirds of African-American and Latino students benefit from affirmative-action policies at selective institutions.
Indeed, Obama himself suggested in a 1990 letter that he probably was a beneficiary of affirmative action. Obama wrote in the Harvard Law Record, “As someone who has undoubtedly benefited from affirmative-action programs during my career, and as someone who may have benefited from the Law Review’s affirmative-action program when I was selected to join the Review last year, I have not personally felt stigmatized.”
If we stipulate that Trump and Obama are right—and that Obama was among the two-thirds of African-Americans enrolled in places like Columbia University and Harvard Law School who would not have been there but for affirmative action—didn’t Columbia and Harvard Law place among the best bets in academic history? Shouldn’t supporters of affirmative action highlight the likelihood that Obama—who went on to graduate from Harvard Law School magna cum laude, serve as president of the Harvard Law Review, be elected to the U.S. Senate, and serve as president of the United States—benefited from the policy?
For years I’ve argued that affirmative-action programs should be sharpened to focus on class rather than race, so that poor whites and Asians would benefit, and wealthy African-Americans and Latinos would not. Obama could very well have qualified under the class approach: While his parents were highly educated and Obama attended private school, he was also raised by a single mother who at times received food stamps. (By contrast, Obama’s children would not benefit.)
But the proper defense of affirmative action—whether based on race or class—is not to deny that the policies have an impact on actual individual admissions decisions, but rather to embrace the fact that these are calculated risks that often pay off tremendously.
Defenders of another affirmative-action policy, for the children of alumni, have great reason to deny that the 43rd president of the United States was admitted to Yale through a legacy preference, given George W. Bush’s low standing among American presidents. But shouldn’t those who believe in Barack Obama point to him as a proud affirmative-action success story, rather than deny that he benefited at all?