Webb: Affirmative Action Behind Obama Woes

May 21, 2008 6:59pm

ABC News’ Teddy Davis, Mike Elmore, and Talal Al-Khatib Report: Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (D), who has not made a 2008 endorsement, blamed antipathy towards affirmative action — and not racism — on Wednesday for Barack Obama’s lack of support among the Scots-Irish in places like Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

"We shouldn’t be surprised at the way they are voting right now," said Webb in an interview with MSNBC. "This is the result of how affirmative action, which was basically a justifiable concept when it applied to African-Americans, expanded to every single ethnic group in America that was not white. And these were the people who had not received benefits and were not getting anything out of it."

Watch the interview here.

Obama supports the continuation of race-based affirmative action though he would informally encourage college admissions officers not to apply it to minorities who have enjoyed privileged upbringings. The Democratic presidential frontrunner has also has said that he would like to see affirmative action extended to poor whites. 

While laying out the hurdles posed by the legacy of race-based affirmative action, Webb expressed confidence that Obama, who would be the nation’s first African American president, can overcome them.

"The fact that they would line up and vote this way is not so much a comment on Barack," said Webb. "I think Barack Obama is saying a lot of good things that will appeal to this cultural group in time."

Jessica Smith, a Webb spokesperson, told ABC News that Webb’s reference to "in time" refers to this election cycle.
She also pointed to former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder (D), the nation’s first black governor, as a model for Obama.

"He took the time to engage the people in the ‘Reddest’ parts of the state," said Smith, "and they took to the fact that his goals and interests were in concert with their own. Senator Webb believes that, with appropriate time spent in these parts of the country, Senator Obama will similarly command the vote."

Webb, whose 2005 book Born Fighting looks at how the Scots-Irish have shaped America, said Wednesday that he bristles when it is suggested that racism is behind Obama’s paltry performance among this group.

"When I hear people say this is racism, it gets my back up a little bit because that’s my cultural group," said Webb. "This isn’t Selma, 1965."

During his Wednesday interview on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," Webb touted a 2004 op-ed he wrote for The Wall Street Journal in which he not only argued that diversity programs have had "an unequal impact" on white ethnic groups but also expressed his hope that an alliance could one day be forged with African Americans.

"The key thing," said Webb, is "if this cultural group could get at the same table with black America, you could really change American politics because they have so much in common in terms of what they need out of government."

Asked if an Obama-Webb ticket might be the way to bring those two groups to the same table, Webb’s spokesperson played it coy.

"I’m not going to answer that question," said Smith.

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