(The Root) — Every time President Barack Obama has waded into a racially tinged controversy, he has suffered a swift political backlash — particularly among white voters. His support among this demographic slipped below 50 percent for the first time after he voiced his concerns over the treatment of Harvard professor (and editor-in-chief of The Root) Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is black, at the hands of a zealous white member of law enforcement. Though there were plenty of Americans who shared his concerns, his poll numbers suffered nonetheless.
It would be several years before he would go near another racially charged controversy, and even then he did so gingerly. But when the president called the death of Trayvon Martin "a tragedy" and added that, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," conservatives were quick to accuse him of playing politics. And for a black politician, being perceived as playing politics with the issue of race can be akin to committing career suicide.
But the president has apparently found a racially charged battle worth fighting for: affirmative action.
The Obama administration has filed a brief in support of the University of Texas' admissions policy, which allows race to be one of many factors considered. The university is facing a legal challenge from Abigail Fisher, a white student who blames the school's consideration of race for her failure to gain admission.
Though President Obama has previously acknowledged that his own daughters enjoy a measure of privilege because of their socioeconomic status and therefore should not be granted an additional leg up in admissions over low-income students, including white ones, his administration is arguing that race still remains a relevant factor in college admissions. In the brief, his solicitor general writes, "Race is one of many characteristics (including socioeconomic status, work experience and other factors) that admissions officials may consider in evaluating the contributions that an applicant would make to the university."
Polls show that a majority of Americans now actually oppose affirmative action, and only 24 percent support its use in college admissions, which makes the administration's move, particularly in an election year, risky. But it's worth noting that these polls may not tell the whole story. A question remains whether most Americans know what "affirmative action" actually means. For instance, when the Washington Post asked for Romney's position on affirmative action, his campaign provided this reply in 2008: "I do not support quotas in hiring, government contracting, school admissions or the like. I believe our nation is at its best when people are evaluated as individuals." He went on to note that he does consider diversity a worthwhile goal.
However, it should be noted that the question did not ask about "quotas," which are defined as "the number or percentage of persons of a specified kind permitted to enroll in a college, join a club, immigrate to a country, etc." Racial quotas are illegal, thanks to the Supreme Court's decision in the Bakke case more than 30 years ago, something I can't imagine a presidential campaign being unaware of.
But focusing on quotas keeps voters distracted from the complicated realities of race in America and how affirmative action plays a role in efforts (not always succeeding, but at least trying) to build a better future and make peace with our past. There are voters who would just as soon forget our nation's past altogether when it comes to race. Expect those voters not to be thrilled with the Obama administration's willingness to wade into the affirmative action waters.
Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.