Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Affirmative Action Meets 21st Century White Supremacy at Berkeley


Original post here.

The University of California – Berkeley College Republicans staged an anti-affirmative action bake sale this week on UCB’s Sproul Plaza to protest Senate Bill 185, that would re-introduce affirmative action in the state of California. The bill recently passed in the legislature and awaits Governor Jerry Brown’s signature or veto. At the bake sale, white men had to pay the most – $2, people of color got various discounts, black men were to be charged 75 cents, and all women got 25 cents off. A demonstration was staged on Sproul Tuesday in response, with hundreds of students of color lying down throughout Sproul with signs that carried messages like “UC us now.” The campus Republicans have sparked a debate about race; whether their entitlement and kvetching will trump facts and reality, and the justified anger they produce in oppressed communities, remains to be seen. On Sproul today, the answer was clearly “no, it does not. ” However, in Jerry Brown’s office it remains an open question.

Several recent studies indicate that multiple indices of racial inequality are at Jim Crow levels. Concomitant polls indicate that most white people not only feel that enough has been done to address racial discrimination, but that white people are now an “oppressed race.” 44 percent of the general American population, surveyed by the Public Religion Research Institute thought that whites are discriminated against as much as blacks and other oppressed groups. Tea Partiers and Glenn Beck have gone so far as to call for a white civil rights movement. The whining of the privileged certainly adds insult to injury, which, to use one of their metaphors, is par for the course in America historically.

This sniveling sits within a context of intense levels of racialized economic inequality, and associated police harassment and violence nationally. At the UC the “white victim” bake sale sits alongside a generation of working class students and students of color being blocked from a UC education, or finding themselves riddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, for blacks, earning every bit of a bachelor’s degree that is worth less than 80% of the white classmates they graduate with.

The University of California, which was once free, has been largely privatized, with tuition increasing over 500 percent since 1980. Tuition has doubled in the last eight years and, under a proposed budget could almost double again in the next 5 years to about $22,000 per year. This has lead to declines in black and Latino enrollment, including a drop of almost 20% in under-represented transfer students in recent years. If the angry white man can’t find liberal enlightenment in Berkeley, maybe mealy-mouthed multiculturalism isn’t enough. When whites on average have 20 times the wealth of blacks and Latinos, half effective policy reforms like affirmative action, that help more middle class white women than people of color in the first place, are not nearly enough to address intergenerational inequality that is not only failing to disappear, but is growing.

Right wing activist and former UC Regent Ward Connerly, who helped write Affirmative Action out of the California Constitution in 1996, and attempted to bar any collection of social data pertaining to race in 2003, came by to be the sole black cookie-buyer and lend support to the Campus Republicans. All three of these efforts – to end affirmative action, to try and block data that shows racial inequality and now to block the re-enactment of affirmative action – are not so much attempts to ignore or downplay race as they are efforts to erase race. However, it goes beyond that.

In reality this transcends erasing or white-washing race, and makes strides towards normalizing the existing racial inequality and re-inscribing a white supremacy where white people believe the defense and extension of their privilege is some form of “reparations” for all the years that the white race was oppressed, whenever the hell that was. These recent right wing effort, grumbling like Archie Bunker that white people are an oppressed race out one side of their mouth, while claiming that it is racist to recognize race at all, is telling.

The President of the Berkeley College Republicans, Shawn Lewis, snidely admits his racism, again equating the historic suffering of people of color and women with that of conservative, rich white men, “We agree that the event is inherently racist, but that is the point. It is no more racist than giving an individual an advantage in college admissions based solely on their race (or) gender[i].”

A generation of attacking the severely limited government programs that half-attempted to address racial inequality (affirmative action, housing subsidies, welfare) while pursuing a racist war on drugs that has three times as many blacks and Latinos in prison than in college, simply drives home the point that this has nothing to with an even playing field. Power has always given some groups the ability to not only oppress, but to construct a historically malleable morality, not only justifying the oppression, but bestowing honor and virtue to the oppressor. This has nothing to do with fairness, neutrality, or justice. This has everything to do with white privilege and white supremacy.

Mike King is a PhD candidate in Sociology at UC – Santa Cruz. He is currently writing a dissertation on gang injunctions and working on a book about the Tea Party. He can be reached at mking at



  1. LOL. Legitimate difference of opinion over public policy is "sniveling." Don't you get it? Race-based admissions and race-based cupcake prices are the SAME THING.

    Deep down you know that. That's why instead of offering intelligent rebuttal to people who disagree with, instead you call them names. Because that's all you've got.

  2. "Race-based admissions and race-based cupcake prices are the SAME THING."

    that fact that you would assert the total equivalence of a piddling bake sale organized for its shock-value on the one hand, and well considered admissions policies that take into account systemic, contemporary racial inequalities w/rt opportunity and wealth on the other reveals how wholly unserious your, and the campus republicans', thinking is on contemporary social realities.

    not to mention the fact that this kind of statement of equivalence relies upon a willful refusal to see how this kind of bake sale entails a veiled assertion of 'white persecution', and thus an attempt to mainstream reactionary racial politics.

  3. Uh, I think the author gets the weak joke. Actually, deep, deep down many of us think but are maybe afraid to argue that affirmative action might actually be far too weak and ineffective as antiracist legislation. While public education is being dismantled (at the moment that it's actually becoming far more ethnically diverse), affirmative action is looking more and more like putting a bandaid on a gunshot wound. Ditto more empty calls for "cultural diversity" while tuition doubles.

    But aside from that small problem, most people except for UCB campus Republicans seem to understand perfectly well that racial preferences and institutional discrimination are already operating at every level of the educational system. Segregated schools concentrated in areas of massive poverty, preexisting economic advantage (test prep and tutoring aren't cheap, mom and dad), and serious resource disparities in the way schools are funded.

    Tim Wise puts it pretty well, "Affirmative action has barely made a dent in these structural inequities, in large part because the programs and policies have been so weakly enforced, scattershot, and pared back over the past twenty years. So despite affirmative action, whites continue to receive over 90 percent of government contracts, to hold over 90 percent of tenured faculty positions, to hold over 85 percent of management level jobs in the private sector workforce, to be half as likely as blacks to be unemployed (even when only comparing whites and blacks with college degrees), and to get into their college of first choice at higher rates than African Americans or Latinos."

    So you either believe that equal opportunity exists right now and that whites, or some Group X, are somehow as a racial group genetically and/or culturally superior, more intelligent, more hardworking, more fit to be leaders, whatever -- or you maybe acknowledge that institutional racism, unearned advantage, and historical patterns of disinvestment might actually, you know, have something to do with these numbers.

    Wise again, "Affirmative action rests on the premise that, in the absence of institutional obstacles to equal opportunity — both past and present — people of color would have obtained positions across the occupational structure, and throughout academia and business, roughly equal to their percentages of the national population. So, on this view, affirmative action merely seeks to create a distribution of jobs, college enrollments and contract opportunities more similar to that which would have obtained anyway in a just society. To reject this premise is to believe, virtually by definition, that people of color are inferior, and that they would have lagged significantly behind whites anyway, even if equal opportunity had ruled the day. Either because of biological or cultural inadequacy, black and brown folks would simply have failed to obtain a much better outcome than they did under conditions of formal apartheid and oppression. Therefore, to this way of thinking, affirmative action artificially elevates those who would have failed if left to their own devices — at least, relative to whites — and injures whites who naturally would have ended up on top, and who because of their merits deserve to do so."