Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Limits of Race-Neutrality in American Politics

This Washington Post article by Peter Wallsten and Krissah Thompson reminds once again of the limits of race-neutrality, this time in American politics.  The point here is quite simple and not at all novel, where groups are positioned unequally in society "neutral" public policies will impact different groups differently. Depending upon the policy, it might improve the position of some groups, worsen the position of other groups, and have a truly neutral impact on some other groups.   Everybody understands this basic point, which is why all interest groups seek group-specific benefits and not neutral-measures.

This is also why the Obama position that he is the President of the whole country and not just African Americans never made any sense.  You can't ask me to vote for you but then ask me not to ask you for anything specific to my needs.  That is not consent of the governed.  There are limits to group-specific measures (moral, constitutional, political, etc.).  So, the point here is not that group-specific must always trump group-neutrality, but the public position of the Obama administration, no race-specific measures (or as Wallsten and Thompson put it, "race-avoidance strategy") was extreme.  In practice the Obama administration was willing to be race-specific as long as it could do so with little attention and visibility.

The truth is that race-neutral public policy measures--the idea that a rising tide will lift all boats, as a universal strategy, will not work for the black community.  We're not all in the same lake. It might marginally improve the black community's position in some contexts, but it will always leave them quite vulnerable at best.

So, here are two questions: (a) will the Obama administration offer specific race-based public policy measures aimed directly at improving the position of the black and latino communities? (b) will those communities settle for less for the symbolic benefits of reelecting the first black president?

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