Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On Birgeneau's Response to the Racist Bake Sale

Facing a national controversy about the stupid racist bake sale, Chancellor Birgeneau swooped in yesterday in a desperate attempt to appease the campus community with a tepid mass email. The UC administration is afraid of bad publicity, but it's also terrified of the rage of students, workers, and faculty who, over the past two and a half years, have confronted strikingly and explicitly racist acts (e.g. nooses) with mass direct action that threatens the university's desire for control. The UC administration's responses to those racist actions were hollow and vapid at best -- calls for "tolerance," false equivalences with the Irvine 11, and so on. As David Theo Goldberg wrote at the time,
To say that the racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic incidents at UCSD, at Davis and UCSC are cases of intolerance is to imply that that those engaged in these expressions are saying awful things to and about people they reject. To call for tolerance is to address only the awful things they are saying, not the underlying and implicit rejection. It addresses the symptom, not the underlying condition of which the individual utterances are merely the manifestation. We should not say such things, it implies, even about people we find or whose behavior or culture we find unacceptable.
Birgeneau's statement resembles these pathetic attempts. The problem with the bake sale, he asserts, is not its racist politics but rather the lack of civility with which it was proposed. Over at Student Activism, Angus Johnston offers the following critique:
And yesterday Berkeley’s chancellor sent out an open letter on the sale. The event, he said, was “hurtful or offensive to many” at Berkeley, though he didn’t say why. It was not the politics of the sale, he implied, that were problematic, but the form of their expression: “Regardless what policies or practices one advocates, careful consideration is needed on how to express those opinions.”

Absent from each of these formal statements was any explicit statement of what exactly was wrong with the Republicans’ sale. (ASUC indicated that actually selling treats to certain students at reduced prices might violate anti-discrimination regulations, but of course actually selling stuff was never the point of the event.)

I wrote yesterday about the hundreds of non-violent protesters who have been arrested at UC campuses in the last three years, and I’ll be writing more about those events as this week rolls on. Seen in that light, the failure of ASUC and Chancellor Birgeneau to do more than merely place themselves on the side of sensitivity and civility rings hollow.

As an act of political theater, the affirmative action bake sale is a pretty paltry one. It offers a weak and overplayed analogy to the admissions debate, rehashing claims that have been batted around for ages. What makes it provocative isn’t its form but its message: that affirmative action is an immoral act of discrimination.

That’s what the College Republicans of Berkeley believe, and that is the message they are attempting to convey with their sale. They believe that affirmative action is racist and sexist against against whites and men, and there’s no polite way to call someone a bigot.

Birgeneau wants to make the debate about the bake sale a debate about how polite the Berkeley community should be. But that’s not what it’s about, on either side. It’s about who should be allowed to enroll in the university, and on what terms.
This is a good point of departure, but it also seems important to emphasize the explicitly political context in which all of this is taking place as well as the history of racist but more importantly anti-racist action at the UC (and more generally throughout California and the country). The administration's key consideration, as always, is its ability to manage, that is, to channel all social tensions through the bureaucratic apparatus in order to neutralize their unpredictability and to continue to extract value from the users of the university without interruption.

[Postcript Tuesday 2:18pm]: Yes.

(photo via @mrdaveyd)


  1. It was a powerful display of solidarity today on Sproul.

    Re: race and privatization. On Hard Knock Radio today, Davey D just pointed out how funny it is that if 15 racist fools hold an event campus Republicans have been putting on periodically since the 80s, the national news can't get enough of it.

    But last week when students of color protested an 81% fee hike over 4 years--a move which will have profound and systemically racist effects throughout the California higher educational system--just 1 news outlet and Hard Knock Radio thought it was important enough to cover.

  2. Jesus, they got a fucking New York Times article.

  3. Can someone calmly and clearly explain to me, in language a simpleton like me can understand: Why are racial preferences in admissions ok; but racial preferences in cupcakes not ok?

  4. Nobody gives a shit about the cupcakes. The problem is the racial politics that they represent.

  5. Some groups have historically been denied equal opportunity to access the things you need to live with a reasonable amount of financial security. These include overtly discriminatory practices with regard to secondary schooling, higher education, loans, and jobs that paid a living wage.

    As the primary means of wealth transmission (usually in the form of homes and inheritances) are transmitted intergenerationally, it means that these groups are still suffering the consequences of prior years' discrimination.

    The consequences are not only material (not as much wealth got transmitted through your family) but also symbolic. Racism and sexism are no longer acceptable public discourses, but there is plenty of research showing that when two job applicants, one named Thomas and the other Daryl, with exactly the same qualifications, apply for the same job, Thomas disproportionately gets a call for the interview.

    One of the great unacknowledged successes of affirmative action is not only that it has increased disadvantaged groups' access to a chance at success, but as a result of that increased success, members of disadvantaged groups are now more easily imagined as legitimate members of the middle and upper classes. Now, ask any black professor, especially female professor about her experience in the classroom, and she'll tell you that she had to have her shit together 100 times more than a white male professor -- students will question her authority, her legitimacy, her arguments far more often than white male colleagues. The point isn't that they feel that they shouldn't have to respond to students' criticisms (though they are often disrespectful rather than simply inquisitive), but rather than it says something about their taken-for-granted legitimacy that they get grilled before students will accept them as scholarly as their white male counterparts.

    To my knowledge, there has been no historical discrimination in access to cupcakes, whereas there has been historical discrimination in access to higher education (via overtly discriminatory policies -- usually by using "character" as a category for admissions, with "character" being a thinly veiled term for "white." Lots of people complained that this criterion wasn't effective enough for keeping out the Jews, incidentally...), as well as discrimination in access to wealth (which made it hard to afford college; and the lack of wealth itself was itself a product of not having been able to attend).

    So, there is lack of access to cupcakes in that disadvantaged groups more likely to have little money, but as cupcake access has not historically been a crucial component of social mobility, and also doesn't cost that it, there hasn't been much interest in affirmative frosting.

  6. Cal discrimination against instate Californians. Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) displaces qualified for public university education at Cal. instate Californians for a $50,600 payment and a foreign passport. Need for transparency at University of California Berkeley has never been so clear.

    UC Berkeley, ranked # 70 Forbes, is not increasing enrollment. Birgeneau accepts $50,600 FOREIGN students at the expense of qualified Californians.

    UC Regent Chairwoman Lansing and President Yudof agree to discriminate against instate Californians for foreigners. Birgeneau, Yudof, Lansing need to answer to Californians.

    Opinions make a difference; email UC Board of Regents marsha.kelman@ucop.edu