During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama denied any political connection between himself and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., his controversial pastor of 20 years. But in fact, Obama and Wright did collaborate politically: just a decade before, the two men worked to pressure the University of Illinois-Chicago’s medical school to implement racial preferences in both faculty hiring and student recruitment. The episode sheds light on how the president’s dedication to racial preferences has shaped his policy agenda.
According to archival material from the Chicago Defender, in 1996, Wright wrote a heated letter to UIC’s recently appointed chancellor, David C. Broski, condemning what he perceived as underrepresentation of black faculty at the medical school. Wright blamed “an ugly mood in the land . . . [in which] racism has reared its ugly head again” and “a strong angry white men’s reaction . . . since the emergence of the Republicans and their vitriolic rhetoric.” Wright continued: “The taking back of affirmative action, the rise of the white militia [groups], the increase of hate crimes on college campuses and the outright ugliness which the Kerner Report predicted over two decades ago are being seen all around us on a day-by-day basis.”
What Wright considered unjustifiably low numbers of black medical faculty offered strong evidence, by his lights, that blacks were “under attack” on the campus. The recent loss of four African-American faculty members for various reasons, Wright wrote, “has created a blow to the cultural and ethnic diversity of the school.” It was “an affront that those of us in the African-American community are not going to sit by idly and just let go by.”
Wright was then pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, one of Chicago’s largest and most influential black churches, and his crusade against UIC made good politics. Not surprisingly, one of his parishioners took up the cause. Then-state senator Obama took part in a January 1998 hearing on the UIC campus, in which 12 black students detailed what they called “systemic racism” at the medical school. Eight students even filed complaints against the school with the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights, alleging UIC was a racist university. “I recognize that in any institution there are going to be some glitches,” Obama told the Chicago Tribune on January 25 of that year. “But when you get repeated complaints, that indicates that maybe we need some institutional change.” Kadijah Harrell, a black student who had been kicked out of UIC’s med school in 1996, said the hearing “was a landmark thing. I feel like we are in the modern civil rights movement.”
But the evidence for racial discrimination was virtually nonexistent. The Tribune’s editorial page dismantled the students’ claims, which seemed to have been hastily assembled into a case against the medical school. In a March 7, 1998 editorial titled “Biting the Hand that Feeds Them,” the Tribune laid out the facts: “One of them [at the hearing] is a student who had to miss six weeks of classes to take care of family matters, failed his exams as a result and was required to take the year over. Another is a second-year student who was denied a grant that is restricted to fourth-year students going into primary care medicine. Another had been in medical school far longer than the four years needed to complete the course of study.”
Another Tribune article pointed out the irony: “The students who say they suffered racial discrimination are themselves the beneficiaries of a nationally acclaimed affirmative action program aimed at ensuring their success in medical school.” Indeed, for all its supposed racism, the University of Chicago-Illinois trained more minority physicians than any other U.S. public university at the time. Through its Urban Health Program, the school actively recruited blacks and other underprivileged minorities. In 1998, when Obama took up the charge of racism against the school, UIC was 25 percent black, Latino, and Native American—more than double the national average for those groups, surpassed only by historically black Howard University and Meharry Medical College in the number of minority medical degrees awarded.
The 12 black students with whom Obama sympathized argued that their race and economic status meant they deserved special treatment from the university beyond the extra support services they already received. The UIC medical school offered special tutorial sessions, along with individual counseling and mentoring, to help them catch up or keep pace with the generally more affluent white students. Indeed, the school devoted some $1.3 million annually to three programs designed to attract and retain black, Latino, and Native American students. Its retention rate for these minorities was 87 percent, not far below the 96 percent retention rate among whites.
But in an argument similar to what we now see in the Department of Education’s attempt to introduce racial quotas into public school discipline policies, the black students claimed that the mere fact that UIC’s medical school kicked out minority students more frequently than it did whites was the functional equivalent of racism. Obama and his colleagues in the Illinois Black Legislative Caucus agreed, joining with Jesse Jackson and a number of Chicago-area black physicians in calling for action. In the end, the UIC College of Medicine denied any wrongdoing but capitulated to nearly every demand and proved Wright’s political prediction correct. “We may not be able to do anything about [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich from here in Chicago . . . [or] about Pat Buchanan and his popularity among white racists,” Wright told the Defender in 1998, “but we certainly can do something about the university . . . and its complete ignoring of the mandates to be inclusive not only in the student body, but at the faculty level.”
What Wright and Obama started at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s medical school, Obama’s health-reform law would expand on a national scale. Page 879 of the Affordable Care Act explains that the Secretary of Health and Human Services “in awarding grants or contracts under this section . . . shall give preferences to entities that have a demonstrated record of . . . training individuals who are from underrepresented minority groups [blacks and Latinos] or disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Ever since the 1978 landmark affirmative-action case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, proponents of racial preferences have argued that giving blacks and Latinos preferential access will improve health-care outcomes in minority communities. Cassandra Butts, a former deputy White House counsel in the Obama administration, an Obama law school friend, and a disciple of racialist legal theorist Derrick Bell, even argued that the “disparities” in health-care outcomes stem from structural racism. And yet, as is often the case with arguments for racial preferences, no evidence exists to support these claims. As the United States Commission on Civil Rights put it at the height of the Obamacare debate: “Racial preferences in the Senate Health Care Bill, in addition to being unconstitutional, will not improve health care outcomes for minority patients.”
Obama has opposed initiatives that would make racial preferences on the part of government unconstitutional. Throughout his career in national politics, Obama has smoothly suggested that he would be open to ending race preferences entirely, at least for his “advantaged” daughters. He has claimed in the past that he favors preferences based on socio-economic status rather than on race. But Obama supported race-based preferences in Michigan in 2003, in multiple states in 2008, and in Arizona in 2010. This year, his Justice Department filed an amicus brief opposing Abigail Fisher, a white student alleging discrimination in admissions at the University of Texas. As Obama told George Stephanopoulos in 2008: “I would like to think that if we make good decisions and we invest in early childhood education, improved K through 12, if we have done what needs to be done to ensure that kids who are qualified to go to college can afford it, that affirmative action becomes a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality in this society.”
That sounds nice, but it means he still supports racial preferences—and has for a long time. As is so often the case with Obama, despite masking his beliefs with popular talking points, his actions reveal his left-wing ideology. We’ll learn soon whether enough Americans, after four years of his leadership, finally see through it.