Sidestepping racism to defuse it

Barack Obama had no choice but to disagree with Jimmy Carter. Carter called some of Obama’s most hysterical critics racist. But our first nonwhite president once again tried hard not to be sucked into a racial uproar. As much as he and his liberal allies like to declare that Americans need to hash out racial issues publicly, the subject of race can only damage his presidency.

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs categorically declared that the president did not think the criticism directed at him and his policies was “based on the color of his skin.” The next day, Obama declined to answer a reporter who asked again about Carter’s remarks. Over the weekend, the president insisted that the “biggest driver” of the vitriol was distrust of government.

I don’t interpret Obama’s refusal to engage as a sign of passivity. In fact, after half a century of talking about race until we’re blue in the face (so to speak), the president’s silence is one of many signs that he is showing us a new, post-civil-rights, post-affirmative-action way to deal with America’s racial divide.

The worst thing about affirmative action -- or “positive discrimination,” as the Europeans accurately call it -- is that it seeks to turn racial and ethnic stigmas into socioeconomic advantages. Rather than seeking to mute or erase the significance of racial distinctions, affirmative action turned what was perceived as bad into good. It spread the fallacy that being black, brown or, in some cases, yellow (although I’ve never really met a yellow person) allows anyone to somehow sail through school, careers and life.


That’s a crock, but the rationale behind it was summed up in 1978 by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in his partial dissent in the Bakke case: “I suspect that it would be impossible to arrange an affirmative action program in a racially neutral way and have it successful,” he wrote. “To ask that this be so is to demand the impossible. In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race.... And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”

Blackmun figured, or at least hoped, that we’d only have to live with this counterintuitive logic for a decade or so, but he was wrong. This isn’t to say that affirmative action wasn’t justified -- at least on some levels -- or that it didn’t help anybody. But as much as it helped minorities climb into the upper middle classes, it also institutionalized a racial glass ceiling.

I’m not referring to the “unqualified” label that some confer on beneficiaries of the program. I’m talking about the implicit limits on minorities’ options that an affirmative action mind-set prescribes. Take the media. To the extent they care about diversity, it’s usually to fill ethnically defined roles that serve outreach purposes for the corporation. Too often, Latinos are expected to write only about Latinos, or blacks about blacks. In book sections, minority writers are generally only asked to review minority-themed books. In other words, minorities play a role, and it is, by definition, a minor one.

We saw this dynamic play out politically last year in the Democratic presidential primary when Hillary and Bill Clinton sought to paint Obama as the “black candidate,” meaning he was only fit to represent the part and not the whole. You’ll recall that Obama didn’t take the bait then either.

That’s because for Obama to focus on race as an explanation or a motive for almost anything would be to paint himself as a minority president, not the president. Not only would it diminish his stature, it would play into the hands of those who do think his racial background defines his every action.

For years, we’ve believed that racists had to be called out, but the president’s conundrum suggests there are times when shouting about race only locks you into the marginalized role that the racists want you relegated to in the first place. (He stumbled into this trap in the Henry Louis Gates affair.)

Discrimination can be overturned by enforcing laws. But racial prejudice is another matter. Barack Obama became the most powerful man in the nation by publicly skirting the issue of race, which he refused to let define him. His secret to success reminds me of an old adage: When you fight with a pig, you both get dirty, but only the pig likes it.

Perhaps it’s best not to engage. Whether or not Carter is right about what’s behind Obama’s harshest critics, the president is not likely ever to change their minds.