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Affirmative action advocates should make a better case

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FEBRUARY 16, 2012

Affirmative action found its way back onto The Daily Californian’s front page Tuesday — this time without the help of a satirical bake sale.

For those of you who aren’t up to date on the latest Proposition 209 news: Students staged a protest on Monday outside a San Francisco courthouse as appeals court judges heard a challenge to Prop. 209, the 1996 measure that banned affirmative action at California’s public institutions. Protesters chanted slogans like “You say Jim Crow, we say hell no!”

Many students at UC Berkeley objected to the student government’s endorsement of the protest, a reminder that affirmative action continues to divide the campus.

Those who advocate the repeal of Prop. 209 are making an extremely weak case to the public, and preposterous comparisons between the Jim Crow South and race-blind admissions policies hardly strengthen it. They could and should be making a substantially more compelling argument.

Nearly all justifications for granting racial preferences in college admissions can be sorted into two broad categories. The first is a case for leveling the playing field — the idea that because racism has done profound harm to minority groups, the only way to ensure that they enjoy equality of opportunity is to give them a boost in the admissions process. The second argument is that a diverse student body enriches everyone’s educational experience.

The level playing field argument has dominated campus discussion at UC Berkeley. Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said in a statement that “The playing field will really only be level once Prop. 209 is repealed.” Salih Muhammad, chair of UC Berkeley’s black student union, said during the Prop 209 protest “we believe this is the court’s opportunity to rectify past wrongs.” Back when the bake sale controversy was burning last semester, this was also affirmative action supporters’ leading defense of their position. Berkeley Law Professor David Oppenheimer’s Op-Ed in the Daily Cal, which suggests that affirmative action be used to reverse the effects of Republican policies that discriminate against African-Americans, is just one example.

It’s surprising that the level playing field argument is so popular on campus even though the Supreme Court rejected it in the 1978 case Bakke v. Regents, just 14 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The Supreme Court has allowed affirmative action programs at public institutions to continue — but only “to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger.

Many of my peers are suspicious of the level playing field argument for affirmative action, as am I. Thirty-seven percent of UC Berkeley undergraduates are eligible for Pell Grants, 53 percent are female, and only around a third are caucasian — this is hardly a citadel of privileged white males, or of students who have not faced adversity. UC Berkeley students recognize that race-based affirmative action policies would necessarily make it harder for white and Asian students to get into Berkeley by displacing them with less qualified, less represented minorities.

Many, myself included, have trouble understanding why admissions officers can’t best evaluate the level of adversity a student faced on an individual basis — considering factors like a student’s income level, the quality of the high school attended and whether his or her parents went to college. Berkeley students are suspicious of using race as a proxy for anything, including opportunity. After all, 86 percent of African-American students at top U.S. colleges (the majority of which practice affirmative action) are from middle or upper middle-class families.

The level playing field argument goes against Berkeley students’ very nature — they are hard workers, they believe in competitive meritocracy and they are wary of giving anyone an unfair advantage.

How can affirmative action supporters modify their reasoning to have a better hope of convincing affirmative action skeptics? By using the only justification for affirmative action the Supreme Court has found constitutionally acceptable: that interacting with people of different races and ethnic backgrounds broadens everyone’s intellectual horizons. Prop. 209 opponents must make the case that their position is in the best interests of everyone on campus, not just in the interests of underrepresented minorities.

Berkeley students care about diversity. They recognize that the disproportionately low representation of African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans on campus weakens our institution. Affirmative action proponents should leverage students’ commitment to diversity and de-emphasize their case for a level playing field, which was rejected by the Supreme Court 34 years ago and sounds, to many students, like reverse discrimination.

Everyone on campus wishes the student body were more racially diverse. The challenge for affirmative action proponents should be to convince people — including me — that our interest in having a diverse campus outweighs the ugliness of racial preferences.

Contact Jason Willick at 


FEBRUARY 16, 2012