Put yourself in the shoes of a college admissions officer in another decade or so. You come across an application with a familiar name. It's one of Barack Obama's daughters.
How would you assess her? Should she have an advantage over other applicants because she's black? Her father has left instructions.
In a recent ABC television interview, Obama said his two daughters "should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged." In the same interview, Obama said that affirmative action should become "a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality in this society."
His acknowledgment of some discomfort with race-based preferences could spark a pretty interesting debate in the presidential campaign.
Obama's observation about his kids shows a keen grasp of the obvious. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School. His wife is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law. Their legacy status alone would bring advantages to their offspring at admissions to those elite schools. But Obama quite rightly sees a larger purpose for diversity efforts than to bring more privileges to the privileged.
"I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and been brought up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed," he said in the interview. He added: "There are a lot of African-American kids who are still struggling."
Recent studies show that, while selective colleges may grant minority students an edge based on race, almost no advantage is given to students because they have had to overcome socioeconomic obstacles to qualify for admission. A Century Foundation study, for example, found that only 3 percent of students at the nation's top 146 colleges came from families that earned $35,000 or less a year -- 74 percent came from families that had incomes of $95,000 or above. A report conducted for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that only 6 percent of students at the 19 elite colleges it surveyed were the first in their families to attend college.
In a Tribune interview in October 2004, Obama called economic diversity in college admissions, as well as ethnic diversity, "a compelling national interest."
It "has to be done in a way that is not a back-door use of quotas," he said, "and takes into account the full record of the students, not just race and test scores." In his book "The Audacity of Hope," he noted that supporting economic opportunity for all low-income people, regardless of race, can draw broader political support than a push for race-specific advantages.
Obama's comments are not far from the direction in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were moving in their final days. Each tried to expand the civil rights movement's energies into a fight for better living conditions and economic opportunities for low-income families of all races. Obama would likely find broad support if he made this issue his own.