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Why No One Is Right in California’s Affirmative Action Debate

The protests against the Berkeley College Republicans’ mock “Diversity bake sale” last week, in which minorities were charged lower prices than whites, are illustrating that history is all about taking a step backwards for every two steps forward.

Back in the day, when I started speaking out about affirmative action in 2000, to even question racial preference policies was to be tarred as a moral degenerate. The conversation has moved on since then. America is slowly embracing a sense of preferences as wise when aimed at disadvantage but less so when aimed merely at skin color, as if to be black or Latino is to be “struggling” by definition. It has been thirteen years now that University of California admissions officers have had to aim preference not at race but at a race-neutral “hardship” consideration. Barack Obama could say during his campaign that he wouldn’t want his daughters to be given admissions preferences because of their color and have it arouse no controversy.

However, of late, the same types who were yelling “resegregation” in the wake of California’s Proposition 209, which barred the old-style race-based admissions preference, are striking the same kinds of poses at Berkeley’s College Republicans, who staged a bake sale in which cakes were offered to whites for $2, Asians for $1.50, Latinos for one dollar, Native Americans for 75 cents, and an additional 25 cent knock-off for women. There have been similar events recently at Bucknell and Wesleyan, but at Berkeley, the bake sale is in the specific context of a pending S.B. 185 to restore racial preferences in the form of giving a tuition discount to underrepresented minority students at California colleges.

The truth is that neither side comes out looking great here. There is a certain coyness about Republicans’ pretense that the problem with affirmative action is simply that it “treats races differently.” No affirmative action fan starts with a peculiar commitment to “treating races differently.” The assumption is that one must do so in this particular case, to redress past wrongs, and to adjust for the fact that races suffer disadvantage to disproportionate degrees. One may contest that argument. However, to simply pose the wide-eyed question “Why should we treat races differently?” pretends no such argument is germane, which contributes nothing to the general debate.

Believing as I do that preferences should be based on class rather than race, I have been categorized as “against affirmative action,” and in 2003 was paired at a law school event with a Republican truly opposed to the whole paradigm. Putting up pie charts showing the arbitrariness of racial distinctions, he made not a dent in the thinking of an audience whose most vocal members were brown-skinned students from suboptimal socio-economic circumstances eager to explain why they had not been able to make top-level test scores but felt—quite defensibly—that they belonged at the school anyway.

In exchanges with those publicly asking why we should treat races differently, I have often noted that what they really feel is that even if there is inequality in society, it is the job of those dealt a bad hand to make the best of it regardless, not have the standards changed for them. They would be better citizens to state that explicitly, instead of fashioning a studiously know-nothing approach like showing that “race is meaningless.” It isn’t, and they know it. A coherent anti-preferences argument remains possible despite that—and they need to wipe the smirks off their faces and start making it.

However, the response to the bake sale was equally depressing. As always, we get the grand old riposte, that visceral, theatrical, logic-stanching bludgeon, that it’s “offensive.” There has been a counter-protest. The student senate has voted unanimously in condemnation. Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and two other administrators have deemed the bake sale “contrary to the principles of Community we espouse as a campus” in an open letter.

One might ask, however, where the offense is in a mock bake sale offering a discount to minorities when S.B. 185 would do precisely this and is considered the quintessence of moral wisdom. Just as Republicans need to own their “up by the bootstraps” ideology, fans of S.B. 185 might consider saying that, in a just America, perhaps underprivileged minorities might well pay lower prices than whites. Dicey notion—but many of them could likely cotton to it to some extent, and making it would at least be an argument.

Pro-preference protests are predicated upon a general implication that questioning racial preferences is akin to suggesting a rehabilitation of Hitler. However, the pre-Proposition 209 years were hardly ideal for black people or other minorities at the University of California system, except in the brute sense of getting a certain number of them admitted to the flagship campuses Berkeley and UCLA.

The admissions process was carried out via a two-tiered admissions system in which, while there were certainly black stars and white slackers, the generality was that the black and Latino students were clearly admitted according to a different standard. This was not a matter of hair-splitting, either—the black admits with the best SAT scores in 1988 clustered in the bottom quartile of the scores of all the freshmen, for example. This differential reflected itself in intuitive experience. Three white professors admitted it to me while I was teaching there, having noticed it as I had, and white students weren’t exactly getting the most useful lesson about black performance either. I wrote about this in Losing the Race and I stand by it.

Things are better now. Post-Proposition 209, black students who would have been admitted to Berkeley or UCLA instead went to other fine UC schools like UC Davis and UC San Diego. In 1998, at UC San Diego there was exactly one black freshman honors student. In 1999 under Prop. 209, one in five black freshmen there were making honors—the same proportion as white freshmen. “Resegregation”?

All of which is to say that racial preferences are not morality incarnate. They are a complex and delicate proposition, deserving careful and vigorous debate. The smug rejection of the Diversity bake sale as offensive is, in this light, anti-intellectual bullying, from people who in the same breath will insist that they are interested in dialogue and different points of view. It won’t do to assail the jocular tone of the bake sale as disrespectful—given that few who would level the charge would have any problem with decidedly spiky potshots at Republicans in the Daily Cal and beyond.

The College Republicans are exercising their right to free speech. One is to sense that as ironic, in that they are the conservatives, of the kind that Mario Savio and company were battling back in the days of Berkeley’s Free Speech movement. However, to the extent that racial preference fans at Berkeley condemn opposition to their ideas as offensive—i.e. blasphemous—and leave temperate-minded people afraid to speak their minds, they have become, themselves, The Power—a kind of power that good people are responsible for Speaking Truth To.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.