As Newt Gingrich and many other conservatives continue to demand that Obama’s college transcripts be released, with the unstated implication — read: dog whistle — being that Obama must be a product of affirmative action who didn’t really earn his academic success, Ta-Nehisi Coates wonders why such questions are never asked about rich white candidates.
But there’s also something else — the frame of skepticism is, as always, framed around Obama, not around Romney. No one wonders what advantages accrued to Mitt Romney, a man who spent his early life ensconced in the preserve of malignant and absolutist affirmative action that was metropolitan Detroit. Romney’s Detroit (like most of the country) prohibited black people from the best jobs, the best schools, the best neighborhoods, and the best of everything else. The exclusive Detroit Golf Club, a short walk from one of Romney’s childhood homes, didn’t integrate until 1986. No one is skeptical of Mitt Romney because of the broader systemic advantages he enjoyed, advantages erected largely to ensure that this country would ever be run by men who looked like him.
This kind of skepticism — racism at its most common — is in the air. It surrounds us, and upon this willful ignorance, Americans demand proof of Barack Obama’s existence. The better of us attempt to contest such demands with facts. But the contest itself indulges racism. To truly get to the meat of the thing we must understand why some questions are asked and some are not.
This echoes arguments over the larger affirmative action question. Much outrage is expressed at the idea of giving minority students a leg up in the college admissions process, but those who spew such self-righteous indignation never seem to question the way the children of the wealthy and the powerful are given a huge leg up compared to other students. And the advantages they have are many.
Even if we leave aside the huge advantages that attach to a wealthy family, from access to elite private schools to tutors to even good nutrition and health care, Ivy League schools love to make “legacy admissions” to the mediocre offspring of wealthy alumni, who often donate large amounts of money to the university’s endowment fund. How else to explain George W. Bush or Dan Quayle? Both are dullards who would likely have ended up going nowhere without the many headstarts their families’ wealth afforded them.
But the bi-racial kid from the wrong side of the tracks who ended up being the editor of the Harvard Law Review and is now president? Something funny must be going on there.