Sen. John McCain's flip-flop on affirmative action made headlines this weekend. But a closer look at this mother of all hot-button racial issues reveals that he and Sen. Barack Obama aren't all that far apart.
During an interview on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," McCain sounded like he had flipped when he said he supported an anti-affirmative action ballot initiative in his home state Arizona. Backed by Ward Connerly, a California-based anti-affirmative action activist, the measure is almost identical to one that McCain opposed a decade ago.
The proposed amendment to the Arizona Constitution would ban "preferential treatment" on the basis of "race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin." Although McCain admitted he has "not seen the details," he said on "This Week" that he supported it because "I have always opposed quotas."
Yet, his opposition to race-based hiring quotas did not stop him from opposing a similar plan proposed by the Arizona legislature 10 years ago. "Rather than engage in divisive ballot initiatives," he told a Hispanic group at the time, "we must have a dialogue and cooperation and mutual efforts together to provide for every child in America to fulfill their expectations."
Now that similar Connerly-backed initiatives have won handily in California, Washington and Michigan, McCain appears to have changed his tune in a way that should please his party's conservative wing. Yet, contrary to the assertions of many opponents, affirmative action is more than "quotas."
And if McCain is still seeking "dialogue and cooperation," so is Obama.
The Illinois Democrat explained later that morning at the Unity: Journalists of Color conference in Chicago that he, too, opposes quotas. Yet he also opposed the Arizona measure because "these kinds of Ward Connerly referenda or initiatives" are too often designed not so much "to solve a big problem" as "to drive a wedge between people."
Obama expressed a sensible discomfort, especially with the way affirmative action too often overlooks the truly underprivileged. "Frankly, if you've got 50 percent of African American or Latino kids dropping out of high school," he said, "it doesn't really matter what you do in terms of affirmative action. Those kids are not getting into college."
Instead of viewing affirmative action as "a shortcut to solving some of these broader, long-term structural problems," Obama called for it to be re-thought and re-crafted in such a way that "some of our children who are advantaged aren't getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more."
Significantly both McCain and Obama turned to the military for examples of merit-based equal opportunity. During his overseas travels, Obama said, Iraqis and Afghans were "impressed" not only with our military effectiveness but also with our ethnic and gender diversity, including the fact that the second in command in Iraq is now an African American, Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III.
Our diversity, Obama said, "should be a source of pride. And when properly structured, affirmative action, I think, can be a part of that."
But how? I think McCain offered an excellent clue back in April. "If you're talking about assuring equal and fair opportunity for all Americans and making sure that the practices of the U.S. military are emulated, the greatest equal opportunity employer in America, then I am all for it," he said of affirmative action to a CBS News blogger.
McCain knows. Our military has developed a version of affirmative action since the 1960s that has built the most diverse, yet also best educated military in American history. Yet Connerly should take note of this: As the recently deceased military consultant and Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos chronicled, our military made its progress by recognizing the dynamics of race, not by trying to pretend that race doesn't exist.
Military-style affirmative action sets goals, but not quotas or rigid timetables. Efforts are made to expand the eligible pool of women and nonwhites so more can be considered for promotion. If promotion boards fail to meet their goals, they have to show that, at least, they made an appropriate effort. This was the system that offered Colin Powell, who later became the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, consideration and eventual promotion to general after he was passed over for the smaller eligibility pool.
"If you are talking about quotas, I am not for it," McCain said in April. "(But) all of us are for affirmative action to try to give assistance to those who need it, whether it be African-American or other groups of Americans that need it."
I hope both presidential candidates get to chew over this issue in the debates. Our political and media cultures tend to focus on conflicts. On this issue the candidates might help us stumble onto some solutions.