The Obama Victory: Giving Affirmative Action Its Due

Hugh B. Price
Hugh B. Price Former President - National Urban League

June 24, 2008

Voters of varying ethnic and economic backgrounds have put an African-American one election away from smashing the loftiest glass ceiling in American society. Predictably, Barack Obama’s capture of the Democratic Party nomination for president has triggered a flurry of post-mortems about why this point of inflexion in our nation’s history has occurred.

Pundits and pollsters have explanations aplenty. Some say the decline in urban violence has tamped down white anxiety about black people. More and more young voters these days judge candidates on their merits, it’s said, instead of their race, gender or sexual preference, for that matter. Racially incendiary political campaigns and ads supposedly are passe.

There is much to be said for these theories. But another explanation rings out that politicians and experts ignore, or perhaps hesitate to utter, because the phrase is as so radioactive politically and legally. I refer, of course, to affirmative action.

I recently attended my 45th reunion at Amherst College in Massachusetts . Four other black classmates entered with me in September 1963 (three of us graduated). In that pre-affirmative action era, we comprised a scant 2 percent of the freshman class. The make-up of the other classes was about the same. As a leading bastion of male education, Amherst accepted no women back then. I vividly recall from prospecting for dates that the women’s colleges in the Pioneer Valley weren’t any more diverse ethnically.

In those days, the majority of fraternities at my college refused to accept black students. Since the frats served as the hub of most campus social life, I hardly got to know most of my classmates. Last month’s reunion made up for a half century of lost opportunity as we discovered the vast commonalities among us in terms of professional aspirations and setbacks, family experiences and joys, physical ailments and laments over deceased classmates.

Two generations of American voters have come of age since I stood with roughly 200,000 people on the Washington Mall on August 28, 1963, straining to hear Rev. Martin Luther King’s soul-stirring speech that punctuated the March on Washington . If anything, his words that day resonate even more today in light of the Obama victory. As King intoned, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Since 1963, millions of Americans have studied together and lived together on college and university campuses that are vastly more integrated than they were in my day. We have worked alongside one another in teams in large companies, small businesses, municipal agencies, hospitals and community organizations. As members of the military, we have fought side-by-side in battles and served in close synchronization onboard aircraft carriers. Our colleagues, co-workers and bosses now come in all races, genders and sexual persuasions. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing someone in addition to white males get elected, pilot spacecraft and smash glass ceilings in every realm of American life.

The growing acceptance of diversity that fueled Senator Obama’s victory did not occur by accident or osmosis. It wasn’t the result of immaculate reconciliation. No, it took years of conscious and conscientious affirmative action by the gatekeepers of opportunity-in college admissions, in hiring and promotion, in the allocation of business opportunity-to systematically expose two generations of Americans to one another and gradually teach a gratifyingly large proportion of the population to understand and trust, respect and rely upon one another.

As we strive this election season to rise above ethnicity, let us give this powerful-and patently successful-engine of social and racial progress its due. Affirmative action unquestionably has made our robustly diverse nation a more perfect union.