In 2004, a young Illinois state senator took the podium at the Democratic National Convention and proclaimed, “There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” It was what many voters were eager to hear.
Though few outside his home state had ever heard him speak before, people across the political spectrum took notice of what Barack Obama said that night. His call for unity and healing struck a chord with a population eager to move beyond racial division. Even those who did not vote for him in 2008 were hopeful that his election would bring America to a new postracial era. While he ushered in a new era, it was not the one many expected.
Far from the vision of hope and unity, President Obama on numerous occasions has reinforced racial divisions and identity policies. A recent example can be found in a recently published interview with The New Yorker. Mr. Obama insisted that colleges and universities should be able to offer racial preferences in college admissions — treating people differently based on skin color — as long as it is done in a “careful way.” Lofty campaign rhetoric aside, the president still advocates drawing lines between black applicants, white applicants, Hispanic applicants and Asian applicants. University administrators in turn get to decide which groups receive preferential treatment and which ones must meet higher standards.
“Careful” discrimination is still discrimination. Eight states have already acknowledged this fact and have banned race preference policies in public institutions. Michigan is one of these states. However, when the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative appeared on the ballot in 2006, then-Sen. Barack Obama recorded a radio ad urging listeners to vote against it. He insisted that not allowing policies that grant special treatment based on skin color would undermine equal opportunity and reverse racial progress.
In sharp contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court has applauded these measures and repeatedly affirmed that all states should be moving in the direction of race-neutral policies. This is a reflection of the country’s deep desire to move beyond racial divisions, and it also reflects the fact that skin color is not the obstacle it once was.
Today, people are born with all kinds of advantages and disadvantages, both perceived and real. This fact was acknowledged by Mr. Obama as a U.S. senator in 2007 when ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked him if his daughters should receive special treatment because of their race when applying to college. Mr. Obama admitted that his two daughters “should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged,” a subtle acknowledgment of the absurdity of using race to assess a person’s need. While his daughters may share the same skin color as a child in inner-city Chicago, their backgrounds are worlds apart.
In today’s increasingly pluralistic society, race usually does not — and certainly should not — determine what obstacles individuals have had to overcome or advantages they receive. Sadly, race-based policies lock individuals into stale stereotypes and encourage administrators and bureaucrats to treat applicants as racial tokens instead of unique individuals.
There are many benefits to having institutions made up of people from diverse backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities, and we are right to strive for a culture that provides fair opportunities for any individual who works to excel. Demands for racial gerrymandering, though, in education, business, politics or any other segment of society only stall our progress as a nation toward colorblind equality.
It is only natural for America to remain divided when its government continues to use race to benefit some and discriminate against others. The country is ready for colorblind society. My hope is that one day our national leaders will catch up.
Jennifer Gratz is the founder and CEO of the XIV Foundation.