Racism at Wesleyan?

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on December 7, 2010.

Last week, William Galston, professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland and President Clinton’s first Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy, joined with David Frum, conservative pundit and former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush, to issue a call in the Washington Post for a “No Labels Solution to Washington Gridlock.” Their idea is that we can restore civil debate in the United States if we reward elected officials that “reach across the aisle” and “criticize those who do not.” They are especially concerned to rule out of order two widely-deployed labels: racist andsocialist. In their views, the terms applied to “legitimate policy differences” undermine “democratic discourse.” To stop this, Galston and Frum are launching a new movement at an event in New York on December 13, which they are calling “No Labels.” It will carry forward their promise to “call out politicians whose rhetoric exacerbates those problems,” and “establish lines that no one should cross.”

Not everyone is pleased. Stanley Kurtz, writing on National Review Online, argues in “David Frum, Speech Policeman” that the effect to shut down the use of the terms “racist” and “socialist” will only increase political polarization. Banning the terms or attempting to stigmatize those who use them, says Kurtz, would pre-empt perfectly legitimate political debate. If the Tea Party movement is racist, says Kurtz, let those who make the accusation substantiate it—something they so far have been unable to do. If many believe that President Obama is a stealth socialist, let’s hear their evidence. Polarization results, in part, when people believe their points are blocked from a public airing by the other side. An invitation to instant jeering on the mere mention of a word is hardly a recipe for increasing civility. And the “No Labels” movement wouldn’t really eschew labels:  it would just issue new ones. It would label as uncivil boors (Galston’s and Frum’s actual phrase is “brain-dead partisanship”) those it categorizes as beyond the pale of legitimate political discourse.

The Uncivil Bakery

As it happens, this Washington debate has an echo in bucolic Middletown, Conn. where recent events at Wesleyan University raise some of the same questions about the boundaries of civility. On Tuesday, October 26, a student group called the Cardinal Conservatives staged an “affirmative-action bake sale.”  The event was not exactly a novelty. Affirmative-action bake sales go back at least to February 2002, when one was mounted by the University of New Mexico College Republicans, according to the student newspaper, the Daily Lobo. The format was almost identical to the Wesleyan event, though there are some differences in detail. Back in 2002 in New Mexico, “Cookies were 25 cents for Hispanics, American Indians and blacks; $1 for Caucasian or Asian females; and $1.50 for Caucasian or Asian males.” The Cardinal Conservatives offered the menu:

White /Caucasian $2.00
Asian/Asian American $1.50
Latino/Hispanic $1.00
Black/African American $0.75
Native American $0.00

One thing that jumps out is how eager the Wesleyan students were not to trip over the bristling problem of nomenclature. Beyond this, of course, the whole idea was to give offense. Affirmative-action bake sales are meant to bring home to students that a sliding scale giving favorable treatment to some students, based on their race or ethnicity, is disturbing and indeed offensive. Generally it was up to the spectators to take the analogical jump: If racial hierarchy is bad when it comes to selling cookies, might it also be bad when it comes to granting college admissions, financial aid, and other amenities that colleges have at their disposal?

Since the experiment of affirmative-action bake sales has been running for a decade (or more), we pretty much have the answer. 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.

Stale Cookies

The earliest Chronicle of Higher Education report on the phenomenon, from February 2003, reported on affirmative-action bake sales at the University of Michigan and UCLA. In both cases, the student groups that staged the events got what the Chroniclecalled “complaints,” without getting more specific. But we can infer the nature of the complaints from the response of the cookie salesmen who said something to the effect that “affirmative action is racist but [we] aren’t.” The same hapless dialogue recurs every time. It happened at the University of Richmond in February 2003, with two novelties: The University of Richmond is the first instance I can find of a university responding with the claim that it didn’t actually engage in “affirmative action” in admissions, and the university also responded with an organized forum to discuss the matter.

The College of William & Mary tried to shut down the “Sons of Liberty’s” affirmative-action bake sale in November 2003, but the students prevailed the following January. The college president didn’t take defeat gracefully, warning that the Sons “will have not a few occasions in later life to look back with regret on what they have done.” The University of Washington (2003), Northwestern University (2003), Southern Methodist University (2003), the University of California Irvine (2004), DePaul University (2006), and Bucknell University (2009) also shut down student attempts to hold affirmative-action bake sales.

The majority of colleges and universities where such events were held let them go ahead peacefully without apparently any major adverse consequences. The list includes UCLA, Boston University, Kutztown University (where the sale incited a protest march by opponents), New York University, Indiana University, University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M, the University of Colorado at Boulder—and lots more.

Wesleyans stayed true to the University of Richmond’s approach. They first denied that the university employs racial preferences in admissions but then, having admitted that it does, they held a public forum.

From Bake Sales to Ballot Boxes

It is important to summon to mind some of this history, since the Wesleyan event has not only a quality of same-ol’, same-ol’, but also because of the seeming stasis in higher education on the matter of racial preferences. It is, I believe, only a seeming stasis. In fact, a great deal of the energy has dissipated from both sides. Racial preferences are such an established feature of campus life that students generally shrug about them, some in passive approval for sure, but many in cynical disdain. The students know that the powers that be in higher education are deeply invested in identity politics in general and racial preferences in particular and will never willingly change their ways. Change, if it will come, will happen via state referenda, as it has in California (Proposition 209, passed in 1996), Washington State (Initiative 200, 1998), Michigan (Proposal 2, 2006), Nebraska (Proposal 424, 2008) and now Arizona (Proposition 107, 2010). The lopsided popularity of the votes in favor of these ballot measures is such that the battle has moved mostly to the efforts of pro-preference advocates to keep such measures off the ballot.

That’s to say that the real action in opposition to racial preferences on campus isn’t on campus at all. It has moved upstream, to the voting booth and to some extent the U.S. Supreme Court, which in its 2003 decisions in Grutter and Gratz, gave higher education a degree of running room in using race to handicap college and grad school admissions.

Essentially the Court allows the pursuit of “diversity” so long as it is sufficiently obfuscated as being but one factor among many taken into balanced consideration.

Which brings us to why Wesleyans would bother to lie about using racial preferences in admissions. Although as a private university it has more latitude than the University of Michigan did in the Grutter and Gratz cases, Wesleyan is aware that straightforward avowal of racial discrimination in its admissions process is touchy subject. It wants the results of racial preferences in the make-up of its classes, just not the open acknowledgment that this means setting lower academic standards for some students depending on race and refusing admission to better qualified students also depending on race. The best thing to do under these circumstances is to embrace a postmodernist finesse on the subject of “qualified.” What does “qualified” really mean? Qualified for what? Qualified by whom? Any admissions dean worth her salt can run out the clock on that one, meantime having admitted students that don’t come near any sensible definition of being prepared for a strenuous liberal-arts curriculum.

Are Bake Sales Racist?

I’d be happy to let Wesleyan go its crooked way on this, but those darn Cardinal Conservatives have gone and riled up the membership of my organization, the National Association of Scholars, which this weekend appointed to me the task of stating on behalf of the whole membership our concern over the misuse of the term “racist” to characterize the enactors of the Wesleyan Affirmative Action Bake Sale.

The term may have been used more than once but the on-the-record accusation came from Claire Potter, professor of history, to Victoria C. Rowe, one of the Wesleyan students who helped to organize the event. The full exchange can be found here, along with pictures of the bake sale itself. Key excerpts:

Such events as the one your organization mounted are mere stunts that do not promote dialogue. Rather, they are intended to promote solidarity among young conservatives at different campuses. Actual speech promotes dialogue, not mocking others and implying that some students are less accomplished and less deserving than other students; or that some faculty must not belong at Wesleyan because they might have been appointed with attention to faculty diversity.

Without speaking the word race, you and your group are in fact stigmatizing students of color and their allies without mustering any facts that these fellow students *are* less “qualified” to attend a competitive university than you and your political allies are.

There are many of us that think this event, in and of itself, was racist because of that harm, and that the failure to consider that as an outcome of a certain kind of political speech is not what we expect of Wesleyan students, regardless of their political beliefs.

Professor Potter’s animadversions didn’t sit well with the Cardinal Conservatives or with others who began to tune in to the affair. The head of our Connecticut affiliate brought the matter to our attention. The NAS Director of Communications Ashley Thorne wrote about it on our website as “Wesleyan’s Affirmative Action Reaction.” And tomorrow, Wednesday December 8, at 4:30, Ward Connerly, former regent of the University of California, chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute, and the key strategist behind California’s Proposition 209 and all those other state ballot initiatives, will speak at Wesleyan.

Ward Connerly is a powerful speaker and not one to be daunted by a hostile reception. The Cardinal Conservatives’ affirmative action bake sale has put the Wesleyan bakery on the map, though I suspect the university’s flailing response and Professor Potter’s intemperate comments had a lot to do with the national attention.

But I have a brief from the membership of my organization to carry out, and I want to take this occasion to do it. Galston and Frum urge Americans to give up the labels “racist” and “socialist.” We can put aside “socialist” in this case. It hasn’t come up. But an accusation of racism is in play. Was it fair? Appropriate? Did it merely exacerbate polarization? Or did it do something constructive? Even ill-intentioned words and actions can have inadvertently constructive consequences, so we have to weigh that too.

The term “racist,” of course, is a weapon. Virtually no one calls himself a racist. It is a label of opprobrium, not a self-description. We use labels of opprobrium not to advance a discussion but to shut down a conversation we would rather not have. Words like this have other functions too, one of which Professor Potter enunciates when she accuses the students of a “stunt” intended “to promote solidarity among young conservatives.” Yes, labels of opprobrium build solidarity on the side of those deploying them.  That’s largely what we mean by polarization:  a striking sense of solidarity in opposition to those who think otherwise. In this, Galston and Frum are surely right about the word “racist.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean it has no role in this discussion. We have a 10-year history of affirmative-action bake sales on college campuses around the country. It appears to me that in every single case for which we have details, the students who staged the bake sales were accused of racism either openly or through coy indirection. (Even Professor Potter’s statement narrowly avoids calling the students racist; rather, the event was racist, and it was racist not because it expressed racist ideas or attitudes but because it hurt the feelings of and “stigmatized students of color and their allies.”)

There are other ways to play this card. The classical rhetorical trope of apophasis goes on heavy rotation in these discussions, where you manage to introduce an idea by saying you aren’t: “I’m not saying you are a racist.” “No one is talking about racism here.” (But you are, and we are.)

To find our way out of this we need some distinctions. First, people can be offensive on the subject of race without being racist. Offensiveness is, well, offensive. It is typically intended to be and it is a resource for those who believe that their opportunity to participate in a discussion has been foreclosed. Offensiveness doesn’t win many friends; it doesn’t aim to.  It aims to get attention for something that the offensive speaker thinks needs to be looked at and otherwise won’t.

It’s OK to Offend

Any form of imposed civility that would try to foreclose offensive speech is doomed to fail, since all it does is establish the boundary that someone will break. Universities, however, need to take care to be open to discussing important topics such as racial preferences, and it is just a plain fact that they are generally not. A free and frank discussion of racial preferences is nearly impossible on most campuses. It is probably the strongest taboo in the whole gamut of taboos that comprise political correctness. If a discussion is to start, therefore, it will start with students such as those in the Cardinal Conservatives who are willing to offend.

When we recognize speech as offensive, we shouldn’t think that we have therefore anesthetized people against its sting. It will sting, at least if it is done right. And if some minority students (and their “allies”) at Wesleyan felt the sting, so be it. In accepting the bargain of racial preferences in admission, they have put themselves in the way of barbs a lot more stinging and long-lasting than the bake sale, and no code of silence will make those go away.

As for the students accused of racism, well, Professor Potter also has her right to engage in offensive speech, and they too have put themselves in the way of that sting. They can’t have put on this event without some idea of how people would react.

That said, I do think we ought to draw a line between the rough and tumble of what students say to each other and what a professor says to a student. The Cardinal Conservatives should have seen what was coming, but that doesn’t excuse the attempt by a professor to use a term like “racist” to intimidate and to polarize.

The Reef

The word “racism” of course has begun to gather all sorts of peripheral meanings. Let’s have some clarity. Racism is the belief that humans are profoundly and importantly divided into hereditary groups; that these groups are inherently unequal in talents and ability; and that their hereditary characteristics are crucial to understanding their group attitudes, mores, and ideas. Racism is always and everywhere associated with hierarchy and privilege, but not always, as some would have it, with white privilege. There are lots of racisms in the world. Advancing hereditary group rights without getting scraped by the reef of racist categorization is a hard passage. I am not sure any have made it. This poses a problem for those who advance a doctrine of racial preferences and makes the whole discussion that much more difficult.

We would as a society be better off if we jettisoned race from our consideration of how public goods such as college admissions are distributed. Getting rid of race, like getting rid of racism, is far from easy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take the preliminary steps. One of those is de-institutionalizing racial categories.

Nothing in what the Cardinal Conservatives did in staging their Affirmative Action Bake Sale remotely qualifies as racist. To get to that term of opprobrium, Professor Potter has to rely on outré definitions in which the word “racism” becomes a cudgel of convenience to thrash those who say unwelcome things.

I do not, however, want to deny professors or anyone else the right to call out racism when it actually occurs. In this, I strongly endorse Stanley Kurtz’s position in opposition to Galston and Frum. We need to be able to talk about difficult matters and the word “racism” is important for calling out people who indeed embrace, revert, or stumble into the age-old logic of hereditary group right.

And if you are in central Connecticut tomorrow, go hear Ward Connerly. 

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