Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The myth of the affirmative action president

I've discussed the ideas of opportunity and determinism quite frequently. And I've invoked Mitt Romney as a good example of how privilege can affect a person's outcome in life. Ta-Nehisi Coates comes to similar conclusions from a different angle, specifically from the calls from conservatives that Obama is an affirmative action president:

But there's also something else -- the frame of skepticism is, as always, framed around Obama, not around Romney. No one wonders what advantages accrued to Mitt Romney, a man who spent his early life ensconced in the preserve of malignant and absolutist affirmative action that was metropolitan Detroit. Romney's Detroit (like most of the country) prohibited black people from the best jobs, the best schools, the best neighborhoods, and the best of everything else. The exclusive Detroit Golf Club, a short walk from one of Romney's childhood homes, didn't integrate until 1986. No one is skeptical of Mitt Romney because of the broader systemic advantages he enjoyed, advantages erected largely to ensure that this country would ever be run by men who looked like him.

Let's grant for a second that Obama is an "affirmative action president". Does that mean he had an easier road to the white house than Mitt Romney did? I don't think that's apparent at all. I'd argue that Obama still would have had a harder time. That's because Obama still had to perform well once he got into the institutions he got into. Just because he got into Harvard (or the Illinois state legislature, or the Senate) didn't mean he would be president.

In a similar manner, just because Romney was born into a wealthy family and into a society that privileged his race over others didn't mean he would be president. We all still make choices. Not everything is completely predetermined. But as Coates points out, Romney had the better opportunity. And most people don't question his rise to the nominee as president because the system has always given people like him the better opportunity.

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