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Emil Guillermo: Hint of Affirmative Action Politics Plays Role in Presidential Campaign

In the presidential campaign, all you’ll hear about is student debt and college costs, if you hear about higher ed at all.

Emil GuillermoEmil Guillermo

Affirmative action? Despite some court cases brewing, nothing.

Frankly, I’d say in Donald Trump—a guy with no experience in governing or in politics and yet so close to being president—some kind of affirmative action is in the works.

But it was Hillary Clinton the other day who actually used a deft political move that was reminiscent of the affirmative action rhetoric of the past.

If you’ve followed the evolution of the affirmative action debate, then you know the basic conflict always boils down to race vs. class.

Those who feel people of color are excluded see race-based approaches should be the primary focus.

Those who hate affirmative action and see it as an unfair advantage for people of color shift the debate and use class as their battle cry. All the while, they hold up ignored poor Whites in Appalachia as their preferred victims.

Clinton’s husband Bill was always a staunch supporter of affirmative action and used the phrase, “Mend it, don’t end it.”

Hillary, I’m sure is pro-affirmative action. But at last week’s joint meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists/National Association of Hispanic Journalists, she veered from the purely race-centric and embraced the class argument.

Clinton decried Trump’s racially divisive outbursts such as his reaction to a Muslim American Gold Star family. But in seconds, she deftly broadened her message.

“I will stand up and call him out on that,” Clinton told the D.C. audience. “But I will also keep reaching out to Americans of all races and ethnicities, wherever they live, to tell them I am not going to forget about them after this election. I am going to work my heart out to help every single person have a better job with a rising income, and make sure their kids get a good education and everything else I think they are owed in America.”

Clinton knows she can’t stop reaching out to Trump’s mostly White supporters, even though the poll numbers for Trump are dropping.

The new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll of 800 registered voters had Clinton up 9 points over Trump, 47 percent to 38 percent. A McClatchy/Marist poll had Trump down by 15. A Fox poll had Trump down by 10.

But the polls are taken among registered voters. Those who care. Likely voters.

Those aren’t the typical Trump supporters.

The Trump voters are democracy’s wild card. They’re the ones who are mad as hell and willing to vote against their best interest. It’s the monkey wrench vote.

They are the voters who don’t normally participate in elections. They think government is a load of bunk. And Hillary’s a liar. They love all the off-the-cuff scuds Trump throws into the political air.

Trump voters are the people democracy has forgotten. Generally speaking, they are the non-college-educated who haven’t registered, haven’t voted. But they are just mad enough to vote now.

That’s the Trump revolution.

“Some of the appeal is xenophobic and racist and misogynist and offensive, we have to acknowledge that,” Clinton said in a Q&A session after her NABJ/NAHJ talk. “But let’s not lose sight of the real pain that many Americans are feeling because the economy has left them behind.”

Clinton continued: “I want to be the president for all Americans. I want to lift up and give everybody a chance to pursue their dreams, and that means people who are supporting him.”

It doesn’t mean she’s taking people of color for granted, mind you.

She said as much to a Latino journalist.

“I don’t take any voter for granted,” said Clinton.

These days she needs to target all those who feel ignored. People of color, and poor Whites.

In doing so, Hillary is defining a new kind of diversity politics, broader than affirmative action, that can unite us all.

The big question I have is why are poor Whites drawn to Trump, the corporate oppressor, who as the outsourcing king has crushed their economic lives?

Why would they vote against their best interests? Because they only trust a White male?

With little more than 90 days left, I think Clinton has figured out the race part of the electoral equation. Community support won’t be going away.

But if she wants to be president, she still has to figure out the Rust Belt White male, the class part of the equation.

Emil Guillermo is a veteran journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund at

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