On TV last week, I got to watch something that had never happened before — the President addressing the assembled Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, London. For a British American, passionate about politics, it was a curious collision of my two worlds.
It was also an opportunity to see how the usually disdainful British press viewed Barack Obama — and he didn’t disappoint.
Cool, calm and informed, Obama was a stunning contrast to the last presidential visitor we’d had in England — George W. Bush. Poor old “Dubya” still bears the brunt of (mostly offensive) jokes about “dumb Americans.”
But Barack Obama? As an ambassador for the most powerful nation on Earth, he was inspiring. He lived up to every expectation — a master statesman and astonishingly intelligent diplomat.
At least, that’s what I thought. Donald Trump, apparently, doesn’t share my opinion.
Because after “The Donald’s” theories about Obama’s birth certificate fizzled out, he engaged the media with another accusation — that Obama didn’t deserve his Ivy League education.
“I heard he was a terrible student,” the Trumpster sneered. “Terrible! How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard? Let him show his records!”
Although the charges ring as hollow as accusations about Obama’s birth certificate, Donald’s play is strategic genius. It feeds into another vein of right-wing paranoia linked to the concept of “affirmative action.”
Affirmative action is a widely administered policy, which identifies cases of organic inequality — such as how white and Asian students are disproportionately represented at college — and tries to redress them by giving preference to those from underrepresented groups.
To a large extent, it’s a wonderful system — capable of not just changing the lives of those who benefit directly from it, but also helping to slowly balance out history and circumstances that have made the world unfair to certain minorities.
But for all those benefits, many right-wingers feel that minorities who achieve any kind of political or academic success do so purely as a result of this “affirmative action.”
Observe the poorly informed Conservapedia’s article on Barack Obama — in which they claimed “he’s achieved nothing that couldn’t be explained as a result of affirmative action” and qualify Obama’s membership of the Harvard Law Review by observing they “use racial quotas” to select members.
Even worse, it’s not just the right wing that thinks this way. In a stunning article for CNN, African-American Etan Thomas recounted how, during his days at Syracuse University, he’d been accused of cheating on a calculus test because he’d aced the curve of his (typically white and Asian) classmates. It was an attitude he encountered a lot.
“One professor asked me, on the first day, what I was doing in his classroom,” he recalls. “Shouldn't I be in remedial English or Rocks for Jocks?”
Even in what right wingers call “liberal elite” academia, there’s the underlying suspicion that African-Americans only make it to college because of affirmative action or sports scholarships.
Thomas’ story highlights one of the serious, but unintended consequences of programs like affirmative action: That it completely undermines the achievements of any African-American or minority who gets to the top through intelligence, perseverance and hard work.
Etan Thomas writes of repeatedly experiencing an attitude of “what’s a black man doing here?” Affirmative action perhaps gives those racists an inadvertent explanation: They’re only here to fill a racial quota, not because they deserve to be.
Even Barack Obama notes that this attitude is a growing one — and in his book [italic|The Audacity of Hope’ admits “rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America.” He, himself, is challenged to answer a white voter’s frustration at having his son denied a place at college in preference of an African-American student with lower grades.
So should the era of affirmative action end?
On one hand, giving one disadvantaged person an “unfair advantage” sets in motion a chain of events that positively benefits generations of future students, and helps make society more balanced.
But at what cost does that come?
Bringing this article back to where it started gives an opportunity to examine the consequences of affirmative action at their worst: In 1996, when Tony Blair became Britain’s Prime Minister, he tried to balance out the disproportionate number of male politicians by ordering that only female candidates should stand in certain elections. This brought a significant number of additional women into the House of Commons.
But instead of bringing gender balance, these women were mocked for being “given” their positions. Dismissed as “Blair’s babes,” they set the credibility of their female peers back two decades.
That’s in contrast to the most famous female British politician of all time, Margaret Thatcher. Known as “the Iron Lady,” she’d said “There will never be a female prime minister in my lifetime” just years before winning the position herself.
While “Blair’s babes” were “given” their positions by a man, Margaret Thatcher earned hers. That’s perhaps why, whether they loved or hated her, there was not a Brit alive who didn’t respect what she’d achieved.
The Audacity of Equality
Perhaps because Barack Obama recognizes that respect — and perhaps because Donald Trump’s accusation of racial bias wasn’t the first — he’s come out in opposition to positive discrimination based on gender or race.
“You’re not anti-Civil Rights just because you question the efficacy of certain affirmative action programs," he wrote in The Audacity of Hope.
“For example, I think that my daughters should be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged. Likewise, we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty.”
"An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific programs, isn't just good policy. It's good politics."
And that’s true enough — because even though such policies were written with the best of intentions, any policy that treats one group differently to another perpetuates inequality, instead of combating it.