Bake Sales and Holidays on October 1: Free Speech Day and National Day in China

Today, October 1, hosts two holidays of sorts: in the USA, Free Speech Day, and in China, National Day. Of course, you knew that…

Meanwhile, now that the dust has- for the moment- settled up in Berkeley, it’s time to weigh in on last Tuesday’s remarkable rising-up over the sale of baked goods in Sproul Plaza, located at the University of California. In case you missed it, here’s the back-story:

State Senator Ed Hernandez (D) of West Covina introduced SB185, and it passed in the Senate and the Assembly, and had arrived on the desk of Governor Moonbeam Jerry Brown.

SB185 aimed to restore the power of the admissions committees of the UC, the Calif. State Univ. System, and state community colleges, to use race, and “other relevant factors” (I’m serious: that is the wording of SB185…) in determining a decision to admit an applicant to their respective campus. This bill aimed to reverse the public decision at the ballot box called Proposition 209; that proposition was carried in 1996: in short, Prop. 209 prohibited any of the state institutions (especially named were the educational systems like the UC) from using race, gender, or any other social status from making any determinations on admissions.

Last week, the ASUC decided to go carpe diem on campus, and set-up a table inviting students passing by to call the Governor’s office phone number and encourage the Old Blue (yup: Brown is a Cal alumnus) to sign SB185 into law.

The Berkeley College Republicans (BCR) caught wind of the ASUC’s proposed outreach, and decided to host a counter-outreach: the Diversity Bake Sale. The pricing on the baked goods was scaled according to ethnicity and gender: If you were a white male, you paid the most for any item; if you were a woman or black, you paid the least. Other ethnic representations were scattered in between. Brief interpretive response: in the great voice of Tracy Morgan, “That’s racist.”

The points of the BCR were manifold: the ASUC should have invited some kind of dialogue or convened a forum for discussion about SB185 before applying student fees to host the table; SB185 proposes sweeping changes in UC admissions policies by fiat, without any legislative guidance for including race or other recommended social factors; indeed, SB 185 is inherently discriminatory. Even BCR agreed: the content of the Diversity Bake Sale was repugnant: just like SB185 and especially the move made by the ASUC to endorse its passage.

Now, as you might expect, and no doubt many of you already know: the reaction was swift to condemn the DBS: see my comment above using Tracy Morgan’s voice. A couple of actions  impressed me as unworthy of the Free Speech Movement, which was largely recognized having its historical epicenter in Sproul Plaza. Both centered on an attempt to silence the BCR.

First, the ASUC hosted an emergency session, in which legislation was enacted to create the threat of punishment for any student group that harasses other students by their speech. Oops. Even the Daily Cal recognized that legislation put itself in conflict with the ASUC Constitution. That kind of “ready-fire-aim” is the stuff that certain states with militaries use to stifle free speech…

Second, Chancellor Birgeneau authored and emailed a campus-wide memo that had the chilling effect of saying that while he wanted civility in all manner of speech, the kind of talk that would represented by an un-named student group would not be tolerated. Yikes. Fortunately, people of all stripes on campus began to see that action for what it was and responded promptly.

So, the DBS took place, as did several counter-protests. Lots of yelling, some debates between students, and lots of baked goods consumed. And another student group hosted a counter-protest of note: they gave away baked goods, inviting the recipients to avoid purchasing baked goods at the DBS. Turns out the not-so fine print of the DBS was: You can pay anything you want for any baked good. Talk about actions speaking louder than words…

I find myself in a bit of a strange social location on this event, benefiting as I have from a Berkeley education, and having participated in student protests over UC investments in apartheid-era South Africa: and I’m a multi-racial male. Hmmm…what to do, what to do…no, I’m not really undecided: I’m with the BCR on this one.

And, No, (add Tracy Morgan’s voice) that’s not racist.

As I mentioned above, the “ready-fire-aim” approach concurs with the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world: no real thoughtful discourse or reflection of what the complexities of the issues are that under contention. Indeed, I’d have to agree with the BCR on this one point and add another: the failure of SB185 to offer any kind of direction or instructions on how to implement the law leaves the UC incredibly vulnerable to the very accusations that the counter-protesters made of BCR: (insert Tracy Morgan here).

And here’s my additional criticism: there is no mention made of how the enactment and enforcement of this law will be paid for. Someone, somewhere, is going to see the passage of SB185 as a gold mine to be tapped: admission administrators need to be trained how to comply with the law, seminars (online or on-site or both) will be hosted, and there’s a heap o’money to be made to achieve: compliance. And, everyone everywhere knows there’s no money coming from Sacramento for anything at all. UC admissions might as well thumb their noses at SB185, because there is no money to spank them if they ignore fulfillment of the law. Welcome to realpolitik.

But, it’s the chilling attempts by the ASUC and the Chancellor that really distracted me this week. They ineffectively and tacitly collaborated to silence students whose views they disagreed with. To be sure: the BCR used a repugnant form of satire to express their disagreement with the politics of the day. But, repugnancy of this kind is not sufficient to silence those students.

The BCR made no threats to anyone, let alone their fellow students. Indeed, they articulated what neither the ASUC or the Chancellor vocalized but ostensibly believe: that Berkeley benefits from an ethnically diverse student body, faculty, and administration. Such diversity represents and serves the State of California. Read that editorial again by the BCR president. That kind of articulation, while muffled by the rhetorical strength of the DBS, has historically contributed to the intellectual vigor of Berkeley.

Does the State of California need its educational institutions like Berkeley to include race and “other relevant factors” (arrgghh) for admitting students? Emphatically: Yes.

But, don’t miss the forest for the trees here: All of Senator Hernandez’ noble statements notwithstanding, this kind of legislation deserves nuance and some careful determination for how it will be paid for. Indeed, if this matter is as urgent as Sen. Hernandez, Chancellor Birgereau (oops: he’s not supposed to tip his hand here…), and the ASUC believe it is: then, let’s get the primary state-supported academic research institute of the State of California working on how to pay for this law to be sensibly and justly enacted.

And, let me add: the kind of legislation that ASUC enacted now puts Christian student groups into an incredibly vulnerable position. All it will take is one accusation over (insert issue here), and that’s it: no funding, no official status on campus, no meetings, and officially endorsed shunning of the students. No voice.

Oh, and by the way: Happy National Day in China…

Postscript: FTW: I discovered this NMA Video about the Diversity Bake Sale: NMA has a great sense of humor… 🙂

Vodpod videos no longer available.
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