Keep Talking
The discussion Barack Obama began about race should remain a part of the presidential campaign.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

BARACK OBAMA'S speech on race, religion and his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. offered an eloquent diagnosis of the racial divisions that still plague America. What's needed now is an equally elevated discussion, not just from Mr. Obama but from the other presidential candidates, about the proper prescription for the problems he so perceptively identified.

One element of Mr. Obama's argument is that a rising tide would lift boats of every hue. "Investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper," he argued. Yet, as Mr. Obama recognizes, that is not a complete answer to the tensions he cited. The hard fact remains that the country faces painful choices about how to address the legacy of discrimination and the persistence of inequality.

How would Mr. Obama -- and how would Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain -- come down on complex issues such as the necessity and constitutional boundaries of affirmative action, in education or the workplace? How would they deal with the continuing segregation of the nation's schools?

Mr. Obama has suggested, for instance, that in applying to college "my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officers as folks who are probably pretty advantaged . . . . I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and grown up in poverty." Does that mean he believes that socioeconomic status should replace race as a factor in college admissions? As a state legislator, Mr. Obama filled out a questionnaire indicating that the government should take race and gender into account in university admissions, hiring and contracting. In 2006, Mr. Obama taped a radio ad urging Michigan voters to oppose a ballot initiative that prohibited the state from using racial preferences to promote diversity in higher education or other contexts.

Mr. Obama noted in the speech that "most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race" and so can grow resentful about affirmative action programs. How would President Obama's civil rights policies address or assuage that resentment? Mr. Obama spoke of white parents' resentment "when they are told to bus their children to a school across town." But in 2007, when the Supreme Court considered two schools that assigned students in part on the basis of race, Mr. Obama argued the plans should be upheld; when the court disagreed, Mr. Obama denounced "this wrongheaded ruling" and vowed to "appoint Supreme Court justices who understand the constitutional importance of Brown," the school desegregation ruling.

Our point is not that we disagree with Mr. Obama's complex views on these complex issues; on these hard questions, we tend both to share his misgivings and to come down on the same side. It's no criticism of Mr. Obama's speech, though, to say that this was only the opening chapter of what should be an extended national conversation. After all, as Mr. Obama said, "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now."

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