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Perspectives: Obama’s Election to Undercut Affirmative Action? Not a Chance

The title for this article was selected in response to this writer’s initial and continued uneasiness in relationship to the question posed by the title of a Diverse Online article of July 2, 2008, “Might Obama’s Success Undercut Affirmative Action?”

The July 2 piece would have its readers confront many questions to include: Does the fact that Sen. Barack Obama is the first African-American to become the nominee of a major political party (Democratic Party) for the presidency manifest itself in undercutting further gains in affirmative action? Secondly, is this a clear indication of our country’s movement to a position of racial equality and thus can we not remove what has been special consideration to place minorities in positions of employment and schools?

The article intimates the significant achievement of one African-American senator to become the nominee of his party for the highest office in the land in and of itself translates that we as a society and nation have conquered the oldest and most evil vestiges of racism and discrimination; thus there is no longer a need for affirmative action. Senator Obama’s carefully orchestrated and arduously successful campaign to win the Democratic nomination is an indication of the willingness of many persons from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to take an objective look at the candidates and the issues and to make their selection. It is not and was not a vote on affirmative action.

Affirmative action is an interesting concept whose definition confuses many persons, as many incorrectly have the idea that it means that employers are required to give jobs to underqualified persons in order to satisfy government mandates or that colleges and universities must admit students of color who would otherwise not be accepted.

In my capacity as a professor, in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Virginia State University, the subject of affirmative action is discussed in several classes. I usually ask my students to explain affirmative action in their own words prior to providing an explanation and history of this important policy. As a part of this exercise I also ask students for their opinion of the continuing need for affirmative action. The results always bring a plethora of interesting, and usually misconstrued, responses defining affirmative action and reasons for or against its continuing need.

A quick examination of the myriad of explanations of affirmative action reveals why there is much confusion on this matter. In We the People: an Introduction to American Politics, Dr. Thomas Patterson cites that equality and liberty are two of America’s core ideals. An ideal is a concept: concepts request actions by those individuals who believe in them. True equality would mean all persons, regardless of race, age, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status would have the opportunity to benefit from the resources of this country.

The history of America shows that its actions have not always followed its ideals especially as they relate to equality. American history provides numerous examples of our troubled path on the journey towards justice to become truly an equalized society. One result of the many attempts to rectify our country’s deplorable record on race and equality was the implementation of affirmative action. Patterson adroitly writes in his chapter on equal rights … “affirmative action is a deliberate effort to provide full and equal opportunities in employment, education and other areas for members of traditionally disadvantaged groups.”

A softer definition of affirmative action can be found in Human Resource Management in Public Service where it is described as “actions undertaken to overcome barriers to equal employment opportunities and to remedy the effects of past discrimination.” The authors of this book limit their discussion to the implications that affirmative action has on human resources of public agencies.

An interesting overview of affirmative action, as it relates to public administration is found in Dr. Robert Cropf’s American Public Administration: Public Service for the 21st Century. Cropf’s description of affirmative action is “a controversial attempt by the government to bring more minorities into the workforce.” The author further states that “there is probably no topic in public administration more controversial … it involves the pursuit of social equity in the public work force.”

The original intent of affirmative action was to level the playing field for persons who through no fault of their own were not able to access jobs, schools, etc in their quest to obtain the American dream. (The Diverse article of July 2 also cites this fact.)

As a middle aged African-American, Barack Obama undoubtedly has experienced many of the problems and pains of discrimination. He has spoken of his personal journey many times during the campaigns and has highlighted some unique aspects of his life growing up as a Black having parents of different races.

The ability of Barack Obama, Duval Patrick (African-American governor of Massachusetts), and David Paterson (African-American governor of New York) to rise to their respective political positions speak volumes to where we have advanced in the process of racial equality. However, the progress of these individuals does not mean that the playing field has become level for the average African-American male or for the race in general. America remains as the title of the noted political scientist professor Andrew Hacker’s book Two Nations: Black and White: Separate, Hostile, and Unequal.

We continue as a nation where living conditions, health care, education, retirement, imprisonment, capital punishment, etc. are all impacted by the color of one’s skin. Statistics have indicated and continue to do so that the ability to obtain sufficient health care is based on a person’s quality of life. Quality of life is impacted by education and socio-economic factors that still are influenced by race. (race – the eternal playing field of America) The bottom line is that White females have the longest longevity in the United States; followed by White males, then African-American females, and finally African-American males. As cited in the July 2 article many feel the disparity of quality of life issues between the races are not related to matters that can be fixed by affirmative action. This may be true, but as with most inquiry related to the implications of racial disparity in this country, this argument begs the chicken egg question.


Affirmative action in spite of numerous court decisions has worked to level the playing field by providing many opportunities for persons who otherwise would not have been able to avail themselves of significant portions of the American dream. The results of court challenges to affirmative action have been to provide clarification and to address questions of reverse discrimination. These questions have been answered and affirmative action remains a viable way for our society to continue to meet the needs of heretofore disadvantaged individuals. The primary outcome of the various court rulings has been the discontinuance of the use of quotas in addressing past discriminatory practices.

Many individuals have benefited from affirmative action. Barack Obama is such an individual as is Justice Clarence Thomas. Sen. Obama through his campaign, his speeches, his books, and his life has left a historical mark on America. He has given new meaning to the dream of many young Black males’ desire to become the commander in chief. Clearly his life would not have taken a few of the turns that it did without affirmative action.

While there have been numerous articles concerning Barack Obama’s candidacy, his possible election as our next president and its impact on our country, the question of its relationship to the need for affirmative action is intriguing. A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll survey taken June 5 July 6 questioned a group of non-Hispanic Whites, African Americans and Hispanics on their feelings regarding Obama’s impact on race relations. Several observations from that survey are significant and relevant to this discussion.

In questioning “Obama’s repercussions on race relations” the results revealed his election as president would be seen by 51 percent of the African-American respondents as making it easier for other Blacks to advance in their individual careers. Additionally, 85 percent of African-Americans who participated in the survey felt that Obama’s election as president would be an indication of progress in the struggle toward racial equality in our country. These figures are significant as they both indicate positive aspects of the continuing discussions on race in our country.

Sen. Obama’s ability to present himself as a candidate of change, and to have his message accepted by enough voters to possibly become the first African-American to hold the highest elected office in this country is affirmative action. It affirms (finally) that an African-American male who has the education, experience, personality, platform, and political know-how can set his sights on the presidency of the United States and have a fair chance to reach that goal.

The outcome of the next presidential election will not be known until November. However, the problems of race and equality in this country will continue. Thus the need for some form of affirmative action in the United States remains until our country is willing to live up to the true meaning of its founding ideals, as there will always be a group or class of individuals whose desire to have and experience the American dream will be thwarted by their inability to participate fully in all this country has to offer. Sen. Obama’s election as the Democratic nominee for the presidency and his possible election is another in many steps America has taken as it continues to move to become a truly equal society.

Dr. Wayne A. Jones is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Virginia State University.

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