Race, Class and Justice

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Regarding Eugene Robinson's May 15 op-ed, "A Question of Race vs. Class":

Kudos to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a longtime supporter of race-based affirmative action, for suggesting that his well-off daughters should not receive preferences in college admission and that disadvantaged students of all races should.

While class-based affirmative action is unfashionable among Democrats, the position has noble roots. In his 1964 book, "Why We Can't Wait," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made the argument for taking steps to address our nation's history. He wrote, "It is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up to his fellow man." But instead of proposing preferences for blacks, he suggested a "Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged." King said, "It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor."

Today, race-based preferences are in trouble. A ballot initiative opposing affirmative action passed easily in Michigan last year and similar initiatives are planned for several states in 2008. A new conservative Supreme Court majority has set its sights on curtailing the use of race in assignment of students to elementary and secondary schools. It is time for fresh thinking on the difficult issue of affirmative action, and Barack Obama -- following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr. -- may be edging toward a transformative role.

RICHARD D. KAHLENBERG

Senior Fellow

Century Foundation

Washington


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