According to Wikipedia, affirmative action began in 1961 when JFK signed Executive Order 10925 which required federal agencies “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin”. For the subsequent half century the United States has been debating in universities, workplaces and ultimately in the courts about what Affirmative Action means and what's acceptable in its execution - from 1978’s California v. Bakke and 1979’s U.S. Steel Workers v. Weber to 2003’s Gratz v. Bollinger and 2009’s Ricci v. DeStefano.
Barack Obama's election has taken affirmative action to its ultimate destination. What is that ultimate destination? Failure. Why? Because it puts race at the heart of a decision that should have nothing to do with race.
How else does one explain the treatment that the press and the public gave to Barack Obama in the run-up to the 2008 election? In 1992 Bill Clinton felt his campaign was sufficiently in peril to tell the New York Times the preposterous tale: “When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn't like it. I didn't inhale, and never tried it again.” Eight years later George Bush’s campaign was almost torpedoed by an “October Surprise” involving his arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol. Indeed his campaign also endured numerous questions about his possible cocaine use. And it didn’t stop with the campaign. As late as January 2007 the Huffington Post featured a piece suggesting the country’s problems were due to the mainstream media not being sufficiently diligent in pursuing Bush’s alleged drug use.
Fast forward a month to February of 2007, when Barack Obama announces that he is running for president. Candidate Obama was quite clear about his drug use, writing in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father: I spent the last two years of high school in a daze, locking away the questions that life seemed insistent on posing. I kept playing basketball, attended classes sparingly, drank beer heavily and tried drugs enthusiastically. Suddenly the notion of drug use being a disqualifier for the Presidency, or, frankly, something the press was remotely interested in, seemed to vanish.
There is something about that Obama quote that is even more interesting than his admitted drug use: “I spent the last two years of high school in a daze.” The reason why this is of such great interest is the fact that after those two years of “enthusiastic” drug use Obama was able to go on and attend Occidental College then Columbia and Harvard. One might wonder how a student who spent his last two years in high school in a drug induced daze could go on to gain acceptance into two of the most selective universities on the planet. Of course it could be that Barack Spicoli was like one of those oft talked about but rarely seen kids who were so bright that they never had to study but were still somehow able to earn straight A’s or one of those students who didn’t bother with school because it wasn’t challenging enough then went on to earn a perfect score on the SAT. While that may be a possibility, from what we’ve seen from Barack Obama as President, it seems unlikely.
Without benefit of seeing his application or the acceptance committee's notes, this is admittedly pure speculation, but I’m guessing Barack Obama gained entrance into Columbia and Harvard as part of some affirmative outreach program, the private / semi-government version of affirmative action.
Unfortunately in 2008 the American people took affirmative action, or affirmative outreach to an entirely new level. While many of us were very disappointed with the GOP candidate, the reality is, by any objective measure, John McCain was far more qualified for running the government and leading the nation than was Barack Obama. Frankly, even Hillary Clinton was much qualified than Obama. Of course elections are rarely just about qualifications. In 2008 Barack Obama won the Presidency because he was, in the words of Joe Biden “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”. In a country where “diversity” seems to have taken on the air of holy writ everywhere from schools to Hollywood to corporate mission statements, Americans were understandably interested in demonstrating that a black man could become president. If nothing else, it would demonstrate just how far we’ve come from the scourges of slavery and Jim Crow.
The problem with that however, like affirmative action itself, is that it changed the pitch of the playing field. While Barack Obama was ostensibly qualified for the Presidency as determined by the Constitution, he was hardly a man well qualified to lead the most powerful and dynamic nation in the history of man. Apparently, however, other than as Joe Biden had characterized him. Heck, even President Reagan's speech writer Peggy Noonan thought it was "a big deal!"
While affirmative action on its face is a travesty, it’s not always a disaster. In college I had a friend who was offered a high paying job right out of school. He was having something of a dilemma in that he wasn’t sure that he wasn’t being hired as part of some kind of outreach program because he was black, although there was nothing to suggest that he was. Indeed, just the opposite, my friend was one of the smartest students in the class – but alas, that’s another downside of affirmative action, it often makes people question the source of someone else’s success - or sometimes even their own. I responded “Who cares?” He hadn’t asked for special treatment and he had no control over the company’s hiring decisions. I told him that in the big picture it didn’t really matter. He would be successful or not based on his skills and his performance rather than the color of his skin. Even if they had brought him on board as an effort to diversify their workforce, corporations are rarely suicidal and if his work didn’t justify his continued costs he would be out on his ear. We lost touch but I have no doubt he was very successful.
While Barack Obama was an affirmative action / outreach choice for many Americans, he didn’t have to be a disaster. Unfortunately for all of us however, he has been. From his incompetence on the handling of the economy to his unwillingness to adapt to changing conditions to his ham handed power grab called Obamacare, Barack Spicoli was never equipped for the demands of the US Presidency. The reality of that should be obvious to most Americans by now.
There may however be a silver lining to this Fast Times in the White House debacle: Perhaps Americans will finally see that affirmative action – including those programs that seek to lower standards in order to promote unqualified candidates, and those that seek to insert race or gender or any other immaterial characteristics into the decision making process – is nothing more than a recipe for disaster. Once America gets back to judging people on the quality of their work, the competence they exhibit and the strengths they bring to the table, or as someone else put it a bit more eloquently almost 50 years ago: "a nation where they (his four little daughters) will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character;" the better off we will all be, black and white and everyone in between.