In April of this year, after persistent badgering by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, veteran commentator Pat Buchanan said the obvious about President Barack Obama: “I think he’s affirmative action all the way.”
Matthews had been goading Buchanan to defend similar comments made by Donald Trump in his short-lived shot at the presidency. “How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?” Trump had asked. “Let him show his records.”
“By charging that Obama was not admitted based on merit,” the Nation fretted in an articled headlined “Confronting Trump’s Coded Racism” and posted on the NPR site, “Trump is suggesting that Obama was admitted because he is black.” The Nation was hardly alone in its indignation.
Bob Schieffer of CBS News wrote off Trump’s comments as an “ugly strain of racism.” DeWayne Wickham of USA Today saw “proof enough of Trump’s racism” in his “attempt to brand the president as the undeserving beneficiary of affirmative action.”
These critiques, however, were perversely inconsistent. Matthews, for instance, conceded that Obama likely did receive special help with his academic career, but insinuated that Trump was a racist for challenging that help.
Others like Wickham seemed to suggest that affirmative-action beneficiaries were implicitly “undeserving” and that Trump was a racist for casting Obama in that lot.
Obama, after all, was the man “whose IQ is off the charts.” Or so said historian Michael Beschloss, before adding, “he’s probably the smartest guy ever to become president.”
Had any of the above critics checked with Barack Obama, however, they might not have been quite so quick to cry “ugly strain.” In a 1990 letter to the Harvard Law Record defending the Harvard Law Review’s affirmative-action policies, Obama openly confessed to being an affirmative-action baby.
In a rare honest moment, Obama described himself as someone “who has undoubtedly benefited from affirmative-action programs during my academic career, and as someone who may have benefited from the Law Review’s affirmative-action policy when I was selected to join the Review last year.”
In fact, Obama did not make the Law Review the old-fashioned way, the way HLR’s first black editor, Charles Houston, did 70 years prior. To Obama’s good fortune, the HLR had replaced a meritocracy in which editors were elected based on grades with one in which, as Obama admitted, “race or physical handicap” could be taken into account.
Obama wrote this nearly 1,000-word letter in response to an earlier letter by Jim Chen, now dean of the University of Louisville Law School. Hewing to the party line, Obama argued that HLR’s affirmative-action policies did not lead to lower editorial standards, did not suggest undeserved success and did not stigmatize presumed beneficiaries.
As if to disprove his case, however, Obama opened this letter with a sentence whose noun and verb don’t agree – a signature failing of the unaided Obama – and continued with paragraph after paragraph of gobbledygook unworthy of a freshman comp student, let alone the president of the Harvard Law Review.
Down the road, Obama would further undermine his case by not contributing a single article to any law journal anywhere at any time, surely a first for the president of the Harvard Law Review.
To kill his case altogether, Obama would have needed only to share the writings of wife Michelle, herself a product of Harvard Law School’s generous affirmative-action policies.
The irrepressible Christopher Hitchens has observed of Michelle’s senior thesis at Princeton, “To describe it as hard to read would be a mistake; the thesis cannot be ‘read’ at all, in the strict sense of the verb. This is because it wasn’t written in any known language.”
Michelle admittedly did not test well either. Compared to her, Obama was Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Like every affirmative-action defender since, however, Obama had no use for evidence. The best way to win the debate, he knew even then, would be to suppress dissent.
In a nicely Orwellian twist, Obama contended in his letter that the reader’s “concern” be focused on those would-be employers “who would even insinuate” that an affirmative-action beneficiary is not every bit as competent as a student admitted under normal standards.
As Trump and Buchanan have learned the hard way, that “concern” lands heavily on any editorialist who would question the value of a program that continues to float only on the wings of fear.
That fear is justified. When Chen applied for a position at the University of Kansas Law School in 2010, the Kansas Law Free Press, the school’s student-run newspaper, struck back with an editorial headlined, “Better Know a Dean Candidate: Jim Chen’s Affirmative Action Debate with Barack Obama at HLS in 1990.”
The article cited Obama’s claim in the 1990 letter that opposition to affirmative action derives from the “deep-rooted ignorance and bias that exists in the legal community and our society at large.”
To be sure, the editors at KU did not have access to Chen’s original letter. Nor did Obama quote Chen in his own letter. The mere belief that Chen expressed some opposition to affirmative action was enough for the editors to accuse Chen of thoughtcrime.
Despite his spectacular CV, Chen did not get the job. My wife, a former dean at a state university, is surprised he has gotten as far as he has. In academia, as in all public enterprises, even minorities risk their future if they challenge affirmative action.
And there is real rub. Affirmative action is sacrosanct and its recipients above reproach only as long as those recipients honor progressive orthodoxy. The minute they wander off the reservation, they and the whole affirmative-action enterprise are fair game for criticism, often vicious.
“I’m black,” Supreme Court Justice Thomas told Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes.” “So I’m supposed to think a certain way. I’m supposed to have certain opinions. I don’t do that.” And he has paid the price. Kroft summarized with surprising candor Thomas’s reputation in liberal circles:
… a man of little accomplishment, an opportunistic black conservative who sold out his race, joined the Republican Party and was ultimately rewarded with an affirmative-action appointment to the nation’s highest court, a sullen, intellectual lightweight so insecure he rarely opens his mouth in oral arguments.
Can you imagine if Trump had said anything like that about Obama?