The ruckus this week at Berkeley over a Republican student-sponsored “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” rhymes with the ruckus two weeks ago in Madison when students egged on by a University of Wisconsin administration mobbed an off-campus press conference.
The Berkeley event for some reason garnered more press attention. Maybe because it conforms to a storyline that the press thinks it knows how to handle. On Tuesday, September 27, The New York Times headlined its account, “A ‘Diversity Bake Sale’ Backfires on Campus.” Backfires? The Times now carries its editorializing right into the headlines of what are ostensibly news stories.
The facts of the case suggest no backfire at all. Ward Connerly, the best known and most important proponent of racial preference-ending civil rights laws, himself showed up and took a seat at the bake sale. The Huffington Post showcased John Hawkins’ essay congratulating the Berkeley College Republicans for “speaking truth to power about the odious race-based discrimination that occurs at college all across the county.” Pajamas Media posted a photo essay, and for a while the story was No. 1 on Google News.
When the student group, the Berkeley College Republicans, last week announced that it would hold its version of this well-worn way of dramatizing racial preferences in college and university admissions, it could not have dreamed of this kind of attention. The organizers were indeed surprised, but especially by the threats of violence they received. College Republican President Shawn Lewis told a CNN reporter:
We expected people to be upset. We didn’t expect personal threats to be made. They were implicit and explicit threats made to the organizers of the event, from burning down the table to throwing our baked goods at us and other kinds of physical threats.
“Affirmative action bake sales,” as they are usually called, have been held on campuses around the country since 2002, and perhaps earlier. I traced some of the history in my Chronicle post, “Racism at Wesleyan?” last December. As I said then, the results of bake sales are known in advance:
We know that at the dozens of colleges and universities where conservative student groups have staged these events, the result is seldom a sudden flood of illumination on the part of students that institutional racial preferences are a form of racial discrimination. Rather, the result every single time is that some students become offended (and say so) and some faculty and administrators cry racism. In a good many cases, administrators have also shut down the sales and tried to punish the would-be vendors.
It appears that the University of California Berkeley stayed exactly on script. The NYT writer, Malia Wollan, quotes administrators and students who opposed the event. Gibor Basri, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, opines:
The bake sale is a misguided attempt by the Berkeley College Republicans to a make a political point about their opposition to a particular bill. A lot of students, especially students of color, read it as placing a higher value on white students.
The “bill” Vice Chancellor Basri refers to is SB 185, a draft piece of legislation that would attempt to open a loophole in California’s Constitutional ban on racial and ethnic preferences. The ban was created by voters in 1996 when they passed Proposition 209, and it has withstood repeated legal challenges. It seems very unlikely that the proposed legislation would pass Constitutional muster, and the lobbying in favor of the bill by the Berkeley student government, Associated Students, is mostly political theater.
So the Vice Chancellor approves political theater by pro-preference students but says the students on the other side of the question are “misguided.”
Vice Chancellor (“for equity and inclusion”) Basri may lack equanimity but by comparison with University of Wisconsin Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate Damon Williams, he looks almost statesmanlike. Williams, as I described in my account of the Madison fracas, summoned students to an “urgent meeting” the night before the press conference and urged them (“Don’t wait for us to show the way”) to take direct action.
Basri, on the face of things, was more relaxed. And there was no reason to worry. Pro-racial-preference Berkeley students were responding to the Republican group not with a mob but with a cupcake giveaway of their own.
Which is not to say that pro-preference students could entirely avoid saying harsh things about the Republicans. Wollan quotes the student body president, Vishalli Loombam, “Many feel the differential pricing is offensive and that it makes them feel unwelcome.”
So did the event backfire? No, it was a pitch-perfect delivery of the essential point.
To highlight the racism carried forward day in and day out by a contemporary college or university in the United States through its use of racial preferences in admissions is to break a campus taboo. It prompts a ritual display of indignation. That indignation gives campus officials and the angry students an opportunity to reassure each other publicly that they are fully committed to the racial and ethnic identity politics project, including whatever subterfuges are needed to maintain double standards for admission and other opportunities. Then things go on as before.
But not entirely as before. The affirmative-action bake sale, or in this case, the “Increase Diversity Bake Sale,” commanded attention coast to coast. As Pajamas Media put it, the Berkeley College Republicans struck a national nerve.” One might wonder: Why did this AA bake sale, rather than dozens of similar ones before it, strike that nerve? Perhaps because the Times’ maladroit news story in advance of the event primed media attention. Or perhaps because it was connected with a controversial bill in California’s legislature; or because it coincided with the testier tone of racial grievance President Obama has been sounding lately; or because progressives expected the event to be a showcase of the strength of their identity-group activism.
Whatever the cause, the only “backfire” turned out to be the Times’s confidence that the Berkeley College Republicans had bit off too big a cupcake. In truth, racial preferences don’t play well with the public and the insults, threats, and occasional violence used by the proponents of those preferences play even worse. Universities come across in these stories as places that do not know how to handle principled dissent.
This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on September 29, 2011.