Monday, January 12, 2009

NAS conference notes 2: Barack Obama and the colorblind vision

Remember when conservatives talked about the vision of a colorblind society and about moving past racial preferences?

In the past couple of years, this issue has been out of the limelight. Last November, a ballot measure to ban the consideration of race in public college admissions and other government operations succeeded in Nebraska but was narrowly defeated in Colorado, after a vicious smear campaign that linked the initative to the Ku Klux Klan and questioned the high salary paid to one of the leaders of the anti-preferences movement, African-American businessman Ward Connerly. Several similar measures were kept off the ballot in other states.

What now?

It's interesting that two speakers at the NAS conference who are strongly associated with the anti-preferences movement -- both decidedly right of center -- spoke of Obama and his election with unrestrained and unabashed enthusiasm. At the opening session, my good friend Abigail Thernstrom, co-author with her husband Stephan Thernstrom of the classic America in Black and White, called Obama's election "a historic turning point" and "a racial conversation-changer." She also noted that a black man's ability to win a contest for the White House came as no surprise "to those of us who have been following polling data and have long believed in the racial decency of ordinary Americans." The fact that the leader of the free world is now a black man, Thernstrom said, has to make it easier and more attractive for people to move beyond race and race consciousness -- and harder to justify preferences with arguments about the alleged intractability of racism. "The younger generation is coming of age in a racially altered world," Thernstrom said, and eventually campus politics will have to catch up.

Maybe Abby is an optimist, as someone suggested in the Q & A; to that, she replied she was cautiously optimistic. It is worth noting that Obama has suggested (in vague terms) that affirmative action should refocus on class, not race.

On Friday, one of the luncheon speakers and award recipients was Ward Connerly, the man hailed as a civil rights leader by some and derided as an "Uncle Tom" by others. At the NAS luncheon, Connerly got a standing ovation. (One of the few people who remained seated, and did not applaud, was the AAUP's Cary Nelson.)


Connerly is an amazing speaker; gracious, warm, energetic. He opened his speech by saying, "We are here in the nation's capital a few days before an event that will demonstrate something most of us in this room have always believed: that America is a fair country and that the colorblind vision works."

Connerly noted that he did not vote for Obama, but believed he deserved to win: "He ran the best campaign and made the strongest case. I accept this verdict by the American people, and I wish him success." (Here, there was a burst of applause from which about half the people in the room abstained; including, I might add, Victor Davis Hanson, who sat on the dais.) "He will be inaugurated only feet away from where Martin Luther King gave his historic 'I have a dream' speech. I am sure that the spirit of Dr. King will be smiling on him," Connerly continued, recalling King's "deep patriotism."

After discussing the recent fortunes of the civil rights initiatives, Connerly noted that "the issue is not just getting beyond racial preferences but getting beyond race. The election of Barak Obama confirms that."

I think Connerly and Thernstrom are right; and I think the kind of conservatism that has a future today is their kind. I'm an optimist, too.

(Ward Connerly photo courtesy of the American Civil Rights Institute.)

26 comments:

colagirl said...

I think you're more optimistic than I am regarding President Obama's ability to loosen the grip of the "race consciousness" mongers on campus. :) IMO, we will have to wait at least a generation in order to get the fetishization of racism and racial issues out of the academy, if it can be done at all. IMO, too many on campus have far too much time and emotional effort invested into the idea of the U.S. as irredeemably racist to back away from it just because Obama was elected president; in fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see a coded "he isn't really black" emanating from these sections of the academy. After all, Obama did not grow up in a ghetto, he is not descended from sharecroppers or plantation slaves, and in fact his mother was a white graduate student. I suspect that at least some of the professional race theorists will attempt to use these things to delegitimize his election as a symbol of hope or racial progress, or whatnot.

But--maybe I'm wrong and you're right. I will say it would be really, really nice if you were. :)

jerry said...

I consider myself a liberal and worry colagirl may be correct.

I am not sure that my fellow liberals will let President Obama shift affirmative action from race to class -- way too many people have way too much invested in their understanding that men oppress women, and whites oppress everyone else.

Obama, in his race speech, noted that whites have legitimate concerns, but in the days after, I watched all the blogs and commenters ignore that aspect of his speech, or explain it away as whites don't have legitimate concerns about race issues, they have unrecognized issues with corporations.

(My consolation is that most of these blogs have been apoplectic the past month or two with Obama's actual appointments.... He's been such a disappointment to them, and after all, they each contributed $20 - $100 bucks to his campaign and registered on his blog....)

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