Berkeley Affirmative Action Cupcake Sale Misses The Point

Driving through southern New Mexico several years ago I came to a crossroads where a state highway intersects a farm road. A truck was parked to the side of the road, tail gate opened, a man sitting legs dangling, in front of him a pile of watermelons and in front of the pile a sign: Watermelon $3.00 ea., it read. And under it, in smaller script, Sandias $2.00. I appreciated the wink, and went on.

A group of Republican students at the University of California at Berkeley did something similar recently. They organized a cupcake sale on their campus where the price of the cupcakes was determined by the race of the potential buyer: White/Caucasian, $2.00; Asian/Asian American, $1.50; Latino/Hispanic, $1.00; Black/African American,0 .75¢;  Native American, 0.25¢; and 0.25¢ off for all women. It was done, according to a CNN report,

to draw attention to pending legislation that would allow California universities to consider race, gender, ethnicity and national origin during the admissions process.

Republican students in other universities across the country have held similar protest/bake sales. Their point is that it’s unfair to consider race or ethnicity for university admission, that students from some groups have an easier time at it than others. I appreciate the point. I don’t necessarily agree, but I’m aware of their complaint. If that’s all they wanted to accomplish, good for them.

But you’d think that students at Berkeley would be a little smarter. They attend a public, tax-supported, land grant institution. And according to the executive summary of a University of California study titled “Undergraduate Access to the University of Califonia After the Elimination of Race-Conscious Policies,” the U of C system has

a deep commitment to extending the benefits of its educational programs and resources to the full breadth of California’s population.

Here’s the problem with the cupcake metaphor: First, the cupcakes must be good, if they’re not no one will buy them regardless of the price. Second, if they’re the best cupcakes on the market, then a $2.oo price tag is what the demand will accept. Third, people who can’t afford them will have to settle for cheaper, lesser quality cupcakes. It’s a pure market operation.

Education, though, isn’t so, at least not as the U of C system sees it. The expressed purpose and goal of the University system has nothing to do with the markets. It has to do with equity of education, where a disadvantaged student has the same opportunities as others, for the well being of the citizens of the state. Maybe it would be truer if the admissions opportunities were based on access to advantage: students from poorer schools, whose parents couldn’t afford SAT tutors, who come from homes where there are no college graduates, would be given a leg-up. But those advantages parallel race. And the best way to eliminate those differences, and by default what some people consider “unfair advantages,” is by increasing the education level of the disadvantaged communities. What must be made clear is that the race of student applicants would be considered only for admission, not for grading or the conferring of degrees. Once admitted it’s up to the student to make the grades.

The cupcake sale implies that if you can afford it, at the price stated, you can eat it. So it’s not that the protesting students are against unfair advantages, they’re against competition, period.

It’s not as if this is new. There used to be race/ethnicity/gender considerations for admission  in California state universities, but they were eliminated. Now they want to bring them back. Again the U of C report:

In 1995 and 1996, the UC Board of Regents and the voters of the State of California adopted measures eliminating race-conscious practices in University admissions and in other areas. Although these measures did not go into effect until the entering undergraduate class of 1998, the University saw an immediate drop in applications from African American, American Indian, and Latino graduates. This drop, along with lower enrollment rates among these students, led to an immediate reduction in the absolute numbers, as well as the proportion, of these students in the University’s freshman class. This decline intensified in 1998, when race-conscious admission policies were eliminated and admission rates for underrepresented students declined on all campuses. That year, the proportion of underrepresented students in the admitted class dropped on every campus, and by more than 50 percent at UC Berkeley and UCLA.

Cupcakes are cute, but not up to Berkeley standards because they miss the point entirely. If all the students wanted was to be heard, then they get a passing grade. If they wanted to make a specific point, they get red marks all over their project.

The New Mexico sandia vendor, on the other hand, got high marks from me on market sarcasm – or honesty, depending on how you see it.

[Photo by magerleagues]

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