Even as Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee last Tuesday, his continuing failure to win white working-class voters clouds his prospects for November. The inability to connect with noncollege educated whites also undercuts his claim to being a truly transformative candidate -- a Robert F. Kennedy figure -- who could significantly change the direction of the country. In the fall campaign, however, Obama's suggestion that he may be ready to change the focus of affirmative action policies in higher education -- away from race to economic class -- could prove pivotal in his efforts to reach working-class whites, and revive the great hopes of Bobby Kennedy's candidacy.
Affirmative action is a highly charged issue, which most politicians stay away from. But nothing could carry more potent symbolic value with Reagan Democrats than for Obama to end the Democratic Party's 40 years of support for racial preferences and to argue, instead, for preferences -- in college admissions and elsewhere -- based on economic status. Obama needs to do something dramatic. Right now, while people inside and outside the Obama campaign are making the RFK comparison, working-class whites aren't buying it. The results in Tuesday's Indiana primary are particularly poignant. Obama won handily among black Hoosiers, but lost the non-college educated white vote to Hillary Clinton by 66-34 percent. Forty years earlier, by contrast, Kennedy astonished observers by forging a coalition of blacks and working class whites, the likes of which we have rarely seen since then.
On May 6, 1968, the day before the Indiana primary, Kennedy participated in an iconic motorcade through industrial Lake County, with black mayor Richard Hatcher sitting on one side of Kennedy and boxer Tony Zale, the native son hero of Gary's Slavic steelworkers on the other. On primary election day, running against Eugene McCarthy and a stand in for Hubert Humphrey, Kennedy swept the black vote but also white working-class wards which four years earlier had supported Alabama Governor George Wallace's presidential bid. Author Robert Coles told Kennedy, "There is something going on here that has to do with real class politics."
Of course, Obama's skin color may have made it more difficult for him to attract these voters than it had been for Kennedy. But in some ways RFK had it harder: The May 1968 primary came on the heels of widespread urban rioting spawned by Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in April. Blue
collar whites and blacks were at each others throats, and Kennedy was the one national politician most closely associated with black America.
In Obama's campaign to win over working-class whites, pundits have pointed to two key obstacles: his 20 year association with the angry and race-obsessed Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Obama's condescending comments about the bitterness of small-town white working-class voters. Some working-class whites appear to believe that Obama is not on their side - worried that he may favor black interests over theirs, and at the same time that he looks down his nose on people like them. The image may be unfair, the result of a single comment he made, played up by his political opponents, but the notion could stick nonetheless.
Obama is right to talk about shared concerns of all working people, such as better health care and schools. But to catch the attention of working-class whites, he needs to do something striking, which further distances himself from the Rev. Wrights of the world, who view life through the lens of race, and also signals to working-class whites that he understands that they deserve a helping hand too. Switching the basis of affirmative action policies from race to class would do just that.
Thus far, Obama has hinted that he's ready for the shift. While Obama has in the past been a strong supporter of race-based affirmative action, in his debate in Philadelphia with Hillary Clinton, he said in response to a question that his own privileged daughters do not deserve affirmative action preferences, and that working-class students of all colors do. He needs to make this explicit, to spell out the new policy, and explain why he is shifting away from his traditional reliance on race-based policies.
Supporting a shift to class-based affirmative action would be the logical policy manifestation of his well received speech on race in Philadelphia back in March. In the address, Obama made clear that this nation needs some form of affirmative action to address the legacy of discrimination in America. He noted that legalized discrimination in FHA loans, for example, prevented blacks from borrowing to purchase homes, leaving older blacks with little accumulated wealth to pass down to today's generations. And he observed that many African Americans continue to attend to attended inferior segregated schools, to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, and to grow up in single parent households, all of which are connected to some degree to discrimination.
On the other hand, Obama acknowledged many of the arguments made by opponents of affirmative action, who say that while such policies might have once made sense, it is now time to move on. Obama faulted Rev. Wright for failing to recognize that significant racial progress has been made, and he urged the country to "move beyond our old racial wounds." Then, amazingly for a Democratic politician, he observed: "Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel they have been particularly privileged by their race.... As far as they're concerned, no one handed them anything."
Resentment builds, Obama said, "when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed." These resentments, he said are not "misguided or even racist," but rather are "grounded in legitimate concerns."
Class-based affirmative action reconciles both points of view. It avoids the explicit use of race that working-class whites resent, moving us beyond the "racial stalemate" Obama described. But a carefully conceived economic affirmative action program would also try to capture the full legacy of discrimination of which Obama spoke. It would be colorblind but not blind to history. Discrimination has economic manifestations, and college admissions officers could give a leg up to smart students who overcome various obstacles which disproportionately affect African Americans: growing up in a low-income household, one headed by a single-parent, a family lacking in accumulated wealth, and residing in neighborhoods with concentrated of poverty, and attending low quality schools. Under such a program, low-income and working-class kids of all races would benefit -- people like the young Barack Obama or John Edwards -- but not students like Barack Obama's own children.
Moving to class-based preferences would at once remove a terrible source of division and instead reinforce the common interests of working-class voters. And it would do more than just help Obama get elected. Reviving the old RFK coalition would give Obama a mandate to enact the type of far reaching change than hasn't been fully entertained since Kennedy's death.