In a June 25, 2003 interview with the Chicago Defender, an urban newspaper serving the city’s African-American community, President Barack Obama praised the U.S. Supreme Court for preserving the practice of affirmative action in U.S. university admissions.
Nine years later, Obama’s Department of Justice filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court on Aug. 13, arguing in favor of racial preferences in the admissions department of the University of Texas.
Speaking at Columbia University on Feb. 23, Attorney General Eric Holder said affirmative action may never become obsolete. “The question,” Holder said, “is not when does it end, but when does it begin. … When do people of color truly get the benefits to which they are entitled?” (RELATED: In Harvard essay, young Michelle Obama argued for race-based faculty hiring)
Obama, a state senator and a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2003, praised the late Maynard Jackson in the Defender interview. Jackson, an African-American mayor of Atlanta, died on the day the high court ruled race could be a factor in college admissions. Mayor Jackson, Obama said, was “the architect among big city mayors of effective affirmative action and set aside plans.”
“He structured it in ways that other mayors across the country ended up emulating,” said Obama. “His passing is enormous to all of us, but, it is fitting that on the same day he passed we had a Supreme Court that narrowly did the right thing by affirming the basic principle of affirmative action.”
While mayor of Atlanta, Jackson signed a law requiring that 25 percent of Atlanta’s projects be set aside for minority-owned companies. He later held up a $400 million airport expansion until a percentage of the contracts went to minority- and women-owned contractors.
“Affirmative action and set asides” were important to Obama, too, as he plotted his early political career in Chicago. The Defender reported on January 29, 1998 that the state senator from Chicago backed John Schmidt, Mayor Richard Daley’s former campaign manger, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Obama named Schmidt’s support for “affirmative action and set asides” among his reasons for endorsing Schmidt over Roland Burris, who would 11 years later hold Obama’s U.S. Senate seat after he became president.
In May 1999, Obama moved to short-circuit a state senate resolution asking Illinois’ nine public universities to collect statistics about the admissions, enrollment and test scores of minority students. The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Equal Opportunity had requested the data.
That group, Obama complained, was “systematically attempting to dismantle affirmative action at public universities all over the country.”
Walter Dudycz, the state senator who had proposed the measure, ultimately withdrew it — but not before telling the Chicago Daily Herald that he resented being called a racist by some African-American state senators.