The world needs a Berkeley. From the Free Speech Movement (FSM) days of Mario Savio and many others, this Bay Area burg has been synonymous with Progressive politics. The campus was in the vanguard of the movement that peaked in the student-led anti-war protests of the early 1970s. And it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the FSM was demonstrating for such radical causes as a faculty free of “loyalty oaths” and on-campus political organizing by anyone other than the tidy Republican and Democratic student “clubs” of the day. That’s pretty prosaic stuff, from this vantage. Besides, Berkeley also proclaims itself a Nuclear-Free Zone, and we’ll all need a safe place to go in case the Unthinkable happens.
Those political clubs are back in the news, as the College Republicans have organized a “diversity bake sale” for this week. Different ethnicities are to pay various amounts for their pastries. Albeit derivative of an identical stunt pulled by Fox News’ John Stossel last year in New York, this self-proclaimed satiric event has had the desired effect of re-igniting debate on Affirmative Action. Specifically, the junior GOP draws attention to a bill on Governor Brown’s desk that would reinstate race/gender/ethnicity-conscious admissions in the UC and CSU systems.
The bill, SB 185 appears to conflict with Prop 209, the 1996 Constitutional initiative that forbids the use of such factors broadly in California public processes, including college admissions. The new measure purports to allow minority-conscious admissions to the maximum extent allowed by the 14th amendment. Those boundaries were recently established by a pair of University of Michigan cases, in which the US Supreme Court approved the “critical mass” approach of the law school, but disallowed “points” policies of the undergraduate college that were not sufficiently “narrowly tailored” to meet Equal Protection muster. Its supporters claim they have threaded the Constitutional needle on this difficult policy matter – if Governor Brown signs the measure, they will surely get a chance to test that theory in court.
Affirmative Action has always been a difficult concept for the American public to accept, in contrast, I believe, to the passive, “thou-shalt-not” commands of anti-discrimination laws. It creates identifiable winners and losers in its processes, and, by forcing the pace of a status-blind society, AA appears to simply turn the tables of discrimination, albeit narrowly and temporarily. Justice O’Connor, in her majority opinion in the Michigan Law case, expressed the hope that one day these policies might be unnecessary, and also the view that we’re not there yet as a society.
So once again, we owe Berkeley the debt of consciousness-raising – this time from the conservative side of the aisle. SB 185 has flown under a lot of radar to its current position. This issue does deserve debate, and thanks to those stalwart College Republicans it’s likely to receive it very soon. It may get a bit heated around here – fortunately, you can always head for those nuclear-free Berkeley bunkers.