CHICAGO — Presidential challengers John McCain and Barack Obama sparred over affirmative action Sunday, with McCain backing an effort to end state and locally run minority preferences and Obama saying policies that consider race need to continue.
McCain, speaking on ABC's "This Week," said he backs a proposed ballot initiative in his home state of Arizona that would prohibit affirmative action policies by state and local governments.
The initiative is part of a nationwide attempt by Ward Connerly to have governmental affirmative action policies eliminated. Connerly, a conservative African-American businessman from Sacramento who led a successful drive to ban affirmative action in California, has been trying to do the same thing in other states.
Asked Sunday whether he supported Connerly's efforts in Arizona, McCain said "Yes, I do," adding that he had not seen the details of the proposal. "But I've always opposed quotas."
McCain's endorsement was an apparent shift on affirmative action. The Republican senator has spoken out against quota systems but he has also backed affirmative action in certain cases. He opposed a 1998 resolution in the Arizona legislature that asked voters to eliminate most preferences based on race, gender or ethnic origin.
"Rather than engage in divisive ballot initiatives, we must have a dialogue and cooperation and mutual efforts together to provide every child in America to fulfill their expectations," he said at the time.
Obama, speaking at the UNITY minority journalism convention in Chicago, accused McCain of flip-flopping and reminded convention attendees about McCain's 1998 remarks.
"And I think he's right," he said. "You know, the truth of the matter is, these are not designed to solve a big problem, but they're all too often designed to drive a wedge between people."
The Illinois Democratic senator said America has made progress on race relations but argued that there is still a need for affirmative action policies in the country.
"I am a strong supporter of affirmative action when properly structured so there it is not a quota, but it is acknowledging and taking into account some of the hardships and difficulties that communities of color may have experienced, continue to experience, and it also speaks to the value of diversity in all walks of American life," he said.
"I've also said that affirmative action is not going to be the long-term solution to the problems of race in America, because, frankly, if you've got 50 percent of African-American or Latino kids dropping out of high school, it doesn't really matter what you do in terms of affirmative action. Those kids aren't going to college."
Obama said he would like to see affirmative action policies altered in a way so "some of our children who are advantaged aren't getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who's struggled more."
On another matter regarding race and ethnicity, Obama rejected any notion that he would back reparations or offer a formal apology on behalf of the United States for the enslavement of Africans or the mistreatment of Native Americans, should he be elected president.
The Canadian government last month apologized for the treatment that aboriginal children received in that country's residential schools. The Australian government issued a similar apology in February.
In 2006, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed "deep sorrow" over Britain's role in the African slave trade but stopped short of a full apology.