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Half-Baked: U.C. Berkeley College Republicans
Allegedly in protest of California SB 185 -- a non-compulsory affirmative action bill currently awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's signature --U.C. Berkeley College Republicans will host tomorrow morning what they're terming an "Increase Diversity Bake Sale." The group plans to implement a sliding scale pricing structure explicitly indexed to gender identification or skin color in determining the cost of a cookie. Baked goods will be sold to white men for $2.00, Asian men for $1.50, Latino men for $1.00, black men for $0.75 and Native American men for $0.25. All women will get $0.25 off those prices.
If SB 185 becomes law it would "authorize the University of California and the California State University to consider race, gender, ethnicity, and national origin, along with other relevant factors, in undergraduate and graduate admissions, to the maximum extent permitted by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, Section 31 of Article I of the California Constitution, and relevant case law."
Both sides, however--the architects of the bake sale and the state's lawmakers--fall short in their diagnoses and remedies for contemporary forms of race-based discrimination.
The Berkeley College Republicans have convincingly demonstrated that they know next to nothing about the genesis, propensities, or parameters of U.S. based "affirmative action" programs and policies. They fail to consider what affirmative action is called when its beneficiaries are white. One answer is social security, another is the G.I. Bill. Simply put, when racically predicated privileges are dispensed to white persons such policy becomes universalized and therefore rendered invisible. What then counts as affirmative action?
Let's take a brief look, for instance, at the monumental social programs of FDR's New Deal and Harry Truman's Fair Deal in the 1930's and 1940's. Programs falling under those rubrics not only discriminated against black people as racial faction, but actually contributed to widening the gap between white and black Americans -- judged in terms of educational achievement, quality of jobs and housing, and attainment of higher income. Therefore, any contemporary conversation on affirmative action must address the ways in which the federal government discriminated against black citizens as it created and administered the social programs that provided the core framework for a vibrant and secure American middle class. Considered revolutionary at the time, the new legislation included the Social Security system, unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, protection of the right of workers to join labor unions and the G.I. Bill of Rights.
Although black citizens benefited to a degree from many of these programs, they received far less assistance than did whites. For example, Social Security was a deal brokered by powerful Southern Congressional businessmen who shaped the programs in discriminatory ways. During the 1930's most blacks in the labor force were employed in agriculture or as domestic household workers. Members of Congress from the Deep South demanded that those occupations be excluded from the minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment insurance and workmen's compensation in exchange for their support.
How about the G.I. Bill? The Servicemen's Readjustment Act, known affectionately as the G.I. Bill of Rights, was a series of programs that invested $95 billion into expanding opportunity for soldiers returning from World War II. By most accounts, the G.I. Bill was a dramatic success as it helped 16 million veterans to attend college, to receive job training, to start businesses and to purchase their first homes. But African-American veterans received significantly less help from the G.I. Bill than did their white counterparts. Written under Southern auspices, the law was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow. Southern Congressional leaders made certain that the programs were directed not by Washington but by local white officials, businessmen, bankers and college administrators who would honor past mores. That is, monies associated with the G.I. Bill were distributed by state and local governments, the very same governments that the Federal Government attempted to quash during Reconstruction. As a result, thousands of black veterans in the South -- and the North as well -- were denied housing and business loans, as well as admission to whites-only colleges and universities. They were also excluded from job-training programs for careers in promising new fields like radio and electrical work, commercial photography and mechanics. Instead, most African-Americans were channeled toward traditional, low-paying ''black jobs'' and small black colleges, which were pitifully underfinanced and ill equipped to meet the needs of a surging enrollment of returning soldiers. (Katznelson, 2005)
In light of my effort to historicize the invisibility of affirmative action for whites, the bake sale devised by the Berkeley College Republicans seems both offensive and laughable. Offensive because it's consummately white supremacist and laughable because it rests on a foundation of historical illiteracy.
Lawmakers in Sacramento, as well, are amiss in their framing of SB 185. I contend that it is possible to fashion relatively uncontroversial facially racially neutral laws that when implemented actually grant preferential treatment in the college admission process to applicants of color and poor students of all colors (gender, to be sure, is a more difficult task here). That is, appeals need not be made to race explicitly in order to create equity in college admission policies. Laws could and should be written primarily with regard to social "space." For example, SB 185 could have read: "the University of California and the California State University are authorized to favor applicants hailing from U.S. census tracts in which 50% or more residents live at 130% of the poverty line or below, along with other relevant factors, in undergraduate and graduate admissions..." Such a law is racially-neutral but would have extraordinarily beneficial outcomes for students of color and poor white students throughout the admissions process.
Why? There is considerable evidence today to suggest that "space" serves as a fairly accurate proxy for race and class. For example, according to the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan residential segregation indexes for Latinos, Blacks, Asian Americans and Native Americans have shown an increase in segregation between 1980 and 2000. And according to the 2000 Census, residential tracts in which more than 50% of residents live at or below the poverty line are dominated by Brown, Black, Yellow, and Red citizens. And those that aren't dominated by persons of color are predominantly populated by poor whites, a faction often overlooked within the prefecture of affirmative action. (Appalachia's poverty rate today is 22% whereas the national average is 15%.) Progressives dedicated to racial equity in admissions policy don't have to play into the hands of conservatives. In some ways it is possible to argue that within the field of college admission "space" speaks the language of race better than race itself does.
Perhaps those in Sacramento could learn from a group of concerned parents who architected Berkeley Unified School District's voluntary desegregation plan in 2008. Although voluntary desegregation and college admission policies are incommensurable, I believe that Berkeley Unified's model is nonetheless instructive. In early 2008 concerned parents and community members in Berkeley, CA developed a stunningly original response to California’s Proposition 209 that prohibits racial preferences in government decision making. Parents intentionally pursued the integration of schools by accounting for race but refusing to grant school assignments solely on its basis. So what did Berkeley do? Parents here divided Berkeley into more than 440 micro-neighborhoods (planning areas) and assigned to each one a diversity code according to its a) racial-ethnic, b) economic and c) educational demographics. Since the race or ethnicity of the individual student isn't considered in isolation—within each micro-neighborhood students from each race are treated identically—and no individual is chosen or rejected for a school on the basis of his or her race or ethnicity, the system squares with the conditions established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sweet-tooths of the world unite; September 27th; 10am, Sather Gate