Affirmative Action: Has the Election of Barack Obama Changed the Discussion?

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Eze Simpson Osuagwu
Affirmative Action: Has the Election of Barack Obama Changed the Discussion? With the election of an African American as President, many would think that the question of affirmative action and equal opportunity have been finally laid to rest in the United States. This perception may seem to be true for the protagonists of affirmative action, who over the years have believed that the struggle for civil rights and equal opportunity can only be seen to fruition if an African American emerges as President (Kamalu and Kamalu 2004). The Civil Rights movement brought issues of affirmative action to the forefront of government policy making, hence Congress enacted the Equal Opportunity Act of 1964 as the legal backbone. It was obvious that the primary purpose then was to create equal opportunities for minorities and the under-privileged in the society. However, as time went by and following subsequent interpretations of the Act by the courts in cases of reverse discrimination, the effect of the law on equal representation in employment, schooling and government contracting was diminished. To this end, affirmative action became a form of preferential treatment awarded to privileged groups, a form of reverse discrimination, a denial of meritocracy and social justice (Pauwels 2011). As a matter of fact, minority under-representation was one of the most widely discussed issues in the polity, to the extent that President Bill Clinton in his 1995 address to Congress said “the way out is to introduce the principle of race neutrality and the goal of aiding the disadvantaged into affirmative action preference programs themselves: to base preferences, in education, entry level employment and public contracting, on class, not race” (Kahlenberg 1995, 21), this was his response to many reverse discrimination decisions coming out of the supreme court in favor of the plaintiffs. The Bush administration however, did not improve the cause of affirmative action, sometimes it accepted preferences and sometimes it opposed them (Clegg 2008). The question is whether the cause of affirmative action has actually changed from racial preferences to class distinction following the election of Barack Obama as President. President Barack Obama, in a speech at Osawatomie Kansas in 2011, told his audience that, “this kind of inequality—a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression—hurts us all”, the inequality that strikes him most is in the distribution of income, the provision of basic resources that will spur the economy back on track. Though it is true, as observed by Kamalu and Kamalu (2004), that the ultimate goal of the Civil Rights movement and the struggle for equal opportunity is to see an African American emerge as President, the implementation of affirmative action goes beyond the interest of the President. Pauwels (2011) observes that since an African American has been elected President, the future of affirmative action is uncertain and the discussion has been removed from the public domain. Pauwels observation may be true to an extent, though the election of Barack Obama has bridged the racial gap, class distinction remains an issue for discourse. President Obama’s struggle for the restoration of the middle class is proactive, and suggests that he is conscious of the inequality in the society from the class structure than in the racial perspective, this concurs with Bill Clinton’s remarks as stated in his speech to Congress. However, in the light of the observations in Pauwel and Kathlenberg, also in the views of the proponents of affirmative action, the election of Barack Obama as President has removed the discussion from the public domain, but he has followed the discussion in the perspective that is most expedient and conforms with his economic policies. The economic emancipation of minority groups should be the driving force of any legislation or government policy initiative aimed at providing...
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