Desmond King

Desmond King Presents the 2012 Roscoe Robinson Memorial Lecture

On February 16, 2012, Desmond King, the Andrew Mellon Professor of American Government at Nuffield College, Oxford University delivered this year’s Roscoe Robinson Memorial Lecture.  King’s lecture focused on his new book, coauthored with Rogers M. Smith at the University of Pennsylvania, entitled Still a House Divided; Race and Politics in Obama’s America.

Established three years ago, the General Roscoe Robinson, Jr. Memorial Lecture Series on Diversity and Public Service is a tribute to one of GSPIA’s most distinguished alumni.  The lecture opened with an introduction of General Roscoe Robinson by Leon Haley, Professor Emeritus at GSPIA.  A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point as well as GSPIA, Roscoe Robinson achieved the distinction of being the first African-American to be promoted to the rank of four-star General in the United States Army.

King focused his lecture on the polarity of American politics regarding race and the two major current alliances on racial issues: the “colorblind” perspective and the race-conscious (or affirmative action) perspective.  King argued that “the colorblind approach has really driven policy in recent years and the race-conscious side has lost many debates.” King cited the Bakke case as one that strengthened the colorblind movement.  In the 1970s Bakke sued the University of California-Davis Medical School for rejecting his application.  UC-Davis held 16 seats for African Americans for diversity purposes and Bakke argued that this was unjust given that his grades were better than some of those who were admitted.  The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Bakke had been discriminated against.

King then gave examples of the two different policy approaches.  Former Pennsylvania Governor Rendell established the Philadelphia Empowerment Zone which was designed to foster economic development in distressed rural and urban communities, without distinction of race. In contrast, the Philadelphia Plan was an example of a race-conscious policy approach. The plan was an agreement between employers in construction and labor unions stating the workforce of federally funded construction and development would have to be representative of the local labor market.  In retrospect, argued King, it may seem astonishing to note that that this was a Nixon Administration initiative.

“What are the consequences of the colorblind approach?” asked King.  Average African- American earnings are still much lower than that of whites, and African-Americans are still far more likely to be incarcerated than whites.  “That is why this remains an urgent issue,” King stated.  Obama has done less than many of his voters hoped, but he has moved to do such things as encourage charter schools to accept students from lower income neighborhoods and to push the Fair Sentencing Act.  Moving forward, King argued, policymakers advocating race-conscious policies will have to be subtle in their approach because such policies have become more and more controversial in recent years.

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