With the election of an African American as President, many would think that the question of affirmative action and equal opportunity have been finally laid to rest in the United States. This perception may seem to be true for the protagonists of affirmative action, who over the years have believed that the struggle for civil rights and equal opportunity can only be seen to fruition if an African American emerges as President (Kamalu and Kamalu 2004). The Civil Rights movement brought issues of affirmative action to the forefront of government policy making, hence Congress enacted the Equal Opportunity Act of 1964 as the legal backbone. It was obvious that the primary purpose then was to create equal opportunities for minorities and the under-privileged in the society. However, as time went by and following subsequent interpretations of the Act by the courts in cases of reverse discrimination, the effect of the law on equal representation in employment, schooling and government contracting was diminished.
To this end, affirmative action became a form of preferential treatment awarded to privileged groups, a form of reverse discrimination, a denial of meritocracy and social justice (Pauwels 2011). As a matter of fact, minority under-representation was one of the most widely discussed issues in the polity, to the extent that President Bill Clinton in his 1995 address to Congress said “the way out is to introduce the principle of race neutrality and the goal of aiding the disadvantaged into affirmative action preference programs themselves: to base preferences, in education, entry level employment and public contracting, on class, not race” (Kahlenberg 1995, 21), this was his response to many reverse discrimination decisions coming out of the supreme court in favor of the plaintiffs. The Bush administration however, did not improve the cause of affirmative action, sometimes it accepted preferences and sometimes it opposed them (Clegg 2008).
The question is whether the cause of affirmative action has actually changed from racial preferences to class distinction following the election of Barack Obama as President. President Barack Obama, in a speech at Osawatomie Kansas in 2011, told his audience that, “this kind of inequality—a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression—hurts us all”, the inequality that strikes him most is in the distribution of income, the provision of basic resources that will spur the economy back on track. Though it is true, as observed by Kamalu and Kamalu (2004), that the ultimate goal of the Civil Rights movement and the struggle for equal opportunity is to see an African American emerge as President, the implementation of affirmative action goes beyond the interest of the President.
Pauwels (2011) observes that since an African American has been elected President, the future of affirmative action is uncertain and the discussion has been removed from the public domain. Pauwels observation may be true to an extent, though the election of Barack Obama has bridged the racial gap, class distinction remains an issue for discourse. President Obama’s struggle for the restoration of the middle class is proactive, and suggests that he is conscious of the inequality in the society from the class structure than in the racial perspective, this concurs with Bill Clinton’s remarks as stated in his speech to Congress. However, in the light of the observations in Pauwel and Kathlenberg, also in the views of the proponents of affirmative action, the election of Barack Obama as President has removed the discussion from the public domain, but he has followed the discussion in the perspective that is most expedient and conforms with his economic policies.
The economic emancipation of minority groups should be the driving force of any legislation or government policy initiative aimed at providing equal opportunity in the society. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. As Barack Obama emerged President of the United States, protagonists of civil rights and equal opportunity would have thought that he will be the champion of affirmative action, being of the minority stock himself.
Nevertheless, he has redirected the discussion to suit the burning issue of the time – the economy and distribution of income. Surprisingly, Barack Obama has not elevated the discussion of affirmative to the height and enthusiasm it was taken to by Bill Clinton, who in his speech to congress was emphatic as to the way forward stating “today I am directing all our agencies to comply with the Supreme Court’s Adarand decision, and also to apply the four standards of fairness to all our affirmative action programs that I have already articulated: no quotas in theory or practice, no illegal discrimination of any kind, including reverse discrimination; no preference for people who are not qualified for any job or other opportunity ; and as soon as a program has succeeded, it must be retired.
Any program that doesn’t meet these four principles must be eliminated or reformed to meet them” (Clinton 1995). Some scholars have posited that a major step in guaranteeing affirmative action is by winning the political war as well, by electing friends of affirmative action to the presidency, state courts, and top judicial positions and the election of judges who are “judicial activists” to the bench to continue to uphold the constitution to meet the needs of contemporary American society (Kamalu & Kamalu 2004). This position may not always hold sway as we can see from the present circumstances that even those perceived to be friends of affirmative action may not be seen to further the cause so generously. Meanwhile, the emergence of an affluent black middle class also made affirmative action claims seem increasingly suspicious, climaxing with President Barack Obama’s election, dubbed by some the ‘death knell’ of affirmative action (Magliocca 2008).
African Americans are now gradually coming to terms that the wings of racial discrimination have been broken, and to a large extent turned to the annals of history with the election of Barack Obama as President. If the racial content of equal opportunity is undermined, as can be seen in the decisions of courts, then it is obvious that what is left in the legislation will not be for the benefit of minorities only, but for the underprivileged class in the society. Who else would have been more silent on the issue of affirmative action if not someone perceived to be a beneficiary? To many Americans, affirmative action has now become irrelevant, a concept only debated in narrow academic circles that cling to the outdated idea of institutionalized racism (Young 2009). Apparently, affirmative action programs have been reformulated to avoid polarization, they don’t focus overtly on race and ethnicity, they cast the net wide so as to seem all-inclusive and they are backed up by strong court cases and judicial decisions in favor of reverse discrimination, and strong opposition for racial preferences.
Opponents of affirmative action have often advanced the views that the fundamental principles of capitalism and the market economy do not provide for absolute equality, it would be utopian for anyone to wish that there will be equality in the distribution of resources. Nevertheless, the struggle for equality that is rooted in the civil rights movement was informed by outright racism and economic deprivation designed through policies of government that were inherently exclusive at the time. It is this struggle for equality that is manifest in the consciousness of the people especially for African Americans to see the election of Barack Obama as a relief for this long struggle for racial equality and economic emancipation. The struggle for racial equality ultimately goes with so many expectations, which practically includes getting one from the minority stock into highest position of governmental decision making.
The election of Barack Obama obviously came, civil rights activists had to heave a sigh of relief and it became a turning point. It has turned out good, everyone has rested his case and the expectation is now focused on the results of the performance of the President in this regard. Immediately after the general election, in November 2008, a New York Times/CBS poll found that the proportion of people who believe blacks ‘‘have an equal chance of getting ahead’’ had risen to 64 per cent, up from 46 per cent in 1997 (Pauwels 2011). Clegg (2008), in his study was very critical of race based affirmative action, he argued that pursuing the cause of affirmative action will undermine the fundamental principles of free enterprise and the spirit of hard work that accompanies economic independence.
He went further to state that “the American Dream has always been that any American can work toward the life he or she wants, and will have the opportunity and the freedom to achieve and accomplish what he or she wants in life. There will be hurdles to overcome, but one barrier that should not be there is the color of an American’s skin or where an American’s ancestors came from” (Clegg 2008, 991), we all know that for many years—for centuries—that dream was not allowed to many Americans. Too often discrimination because of race or ethnicity denied Americans the equality of opportunity they should have had. President Bill Clinton in 1995 restated the fundamental principles of affirmative action that “the purpose is to give our nation a way to finally address the systemic exclusion of individuals of talent on the basis of their gender or race from opportunities to develop, perform, achieve and contribute”.
Affirmative action is an effort to develop a systematic approach to open the doors of education, employment and business development opportunities to qualified individuals who happen to be members of groups that have experienced longstanding and persistent discrimination. Nevertheless, the Obama administration has recognized equality from the perspective of the distribution of resources not opportunities. Like he said in Kansas, “America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.
Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans”, this is vintage Barack Obama substantiating an argument for the sustenance of the middle class in America, knowing full well that empowering the middle class will drive the economy through increased consumption and productivity and ultimately economic growth. What is most intriguing about the arguments of affirmative action is that there is a shift of the premise due to several reasons: affirmative action was supposedly temporary and targeted at the black community only; in fact, these measures were extended over the years to an increasing number of new categories; women (who are today acknowledged as being their prime beneficiaries), then most other ethnic minority groups, including new immigrants (Pauwels 2011).
Its primary rationale became blurred in 1978 when the Bakke decision shifted the goal of affirmative action from repairing past injustices against the black community to the much more ambitious and less clearly defined justification of achieving diversity (Frymer and Skrentny, 2004). Even President Bill Clinton realized this shift in his 1995 speech to congress when he said “that affirmative action has not always been perfect, and affirmative action should not go on forever.
It should be changed now to take care of those things that are wrong, and it should be retired when its job is done. I am resolved that that day will come, but the evidence suggests indeed that that day has not come”. However, that day finally came with the election of an African American as the President of United States, whose drive is no longer affirmative action but equality in income distribution and the provision of basic opportunities for the benefit of all and sundry especially creating a formidable middle class that will cut across all races and ethnic origins.
Clegg, Roger 2008, “Unfinished Business: The Bush Administration and Racial Preferences” Harvard Journal of Law, Public Policy, 32, 971 – 997. Clinton, Bill 1995, “Remarks by the President on Affirmative Action”, Essential Speeches 2009. Academic Search Premier. Frymer, P. and Skrentny, J.D., 2004, “The rise of instrumental affirmative action: law and the new significance of race in America” Connecticut law review, 36 (3), 677_723. Kahlenberg, Richard 1995, “Class Not – Race: An Affirmative Action that works”, The New Republic April 3, 1995. P. 21 Kamalu, Johnson and Ngozi Kamalu 2004, “From Bakke to Grutter: The Supreme Court and the Struggle over Affirmative Action in the Era of Globalization” The Western Journal of Black Studies, 28:4, 489-502. Magliocca, G.N., 2008. The Obama realignment (and what comes next). Working Paper [online], December 2. Available from: http://ssrn.com/abstract_1310202 Obama, Barack 2011, “The New Nationalism: On the whole and in the long run we shall go up or down together” President of the United States: Speech delivered at Osawatome High School, Osawatome, Kansas December 6, Pauwels, Marie – Christine 2011, “Does Affirmative Action have a Future in Barack Obama’s America?” Journal of Intercultural Studies, 32:3, 309-319 Young, C., 2009. “Obama: Race and Affirmative Action”. Real clear politics [online], 27 January. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/printpage/?url_http://www.realclearpolitics. com/articles/2009/01/dnp_obama_race_and_affirmative.html