Independent Politics September/October 1995

 

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, THE UC REGENTS & THE EXPLOSION OF CAMPUS ACTIVISM

By Nathan Newman

 

On July 20, the Regents of the University of California voted to end affirmative action in admissions, hiring and contracting at all campuses. In doing so, the Regents knew they were also voting to support Governor Pete Wilson's race- baiting campaign for President. 

But what they did not seem to realize was that they were voting to reignite a new militant campus movement that has exploded in the wake of this decision.

Thousands of students and community supporters attended this meeting in the remote corner of San Francisco at the UC- SF Laurel Heights campus. That this was summer, a work day and people mostly arrived before 9am in the morning marks the energy behind this protest. But they came, in waves upon waves.

Within weeks, new organizations fighting for affirmative action were forming and the statewide California Students Civil Rights Network, supported by over 35 college campuses, established October 12 as a day of action and protest for affirmative action. National organizations of students along with campuses from around the country have already endorsed this as a national day of action in defense of affirmative action.

Along with student protests, staff unions at UC- Berkeley marked the first day of classes by showing up to work with tee-shirts reading "I work for UC and I support affirmative action"--800 of the shirts were sold to staff by e-mail before classes even started. And faculty began collecting signatures on a statement repudiating the Regents decision and demanding that it be rescinded. Again, even before classes began, 650 UC faculty, 10% of the total statewide, had signed the letter even before classes began.

"The whole aura around campus politics has completely shifted from last year," notes Harmony Goldberg, a leader of UC-Berkeley's Diversity in Action coalition which is a key leader in the statewide fight for affirmative action. "It seems like instead of building energy, the energy is already there and we just need to direct it."

THE REGENT'S VOTE

The July 20 vote to abolish affirmative action was surprisingly close, considering Pete Wilson and his Republican predecessor had appointed almost the whole electorate. The initial vote on hiring and contracting was 15-10, while the vote ending affirmative action in admissions was 14-0 with one abstention.

It is worth noting that this vote came in defiance of the fact that the President of UC, every Vice-President, every chancellor, every campus's Academic Senate, every campus union, and every campus's student government had endorsed and strongly supported the current affirmative action policy.

In the votes on Thursday, every Regent not appointed by Wilson or his predecessors voted against the resolutions to end affirmative action. The representatives of students, faculty, alumni, and K-12 education all voted "no." Even a number of Republican appointees defied Wilson and vote to uphold affirmative action.

As a number of Regents themselves noted, this vote has fatally politicized the University to serve one person's Presidential campaign. And it has shown that the Regents are not an educational body but a home for political hacks and a payoff for campaign contributions. Of the seventeen Regents appointed by the Republican governors, only one Regent has a higher education background and that background is with the arch-conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford. For many Regents, the main reason they were appointed was a payback for continual financial support to Republican campaigns. Ward Connerly, who sponsored the resolutions to end affirmative action, gave $73,000 to Wilson for his last campaign. Others had given Wilson even more.

The debate on the issue showed the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of those seeking the elimination of affirmative action. One thing was clear and made everyone watching the proceedings blood stir: our folks were not only right, they were brilliant and empassioned and the Left found a new voice of freedom in this struggle. From Eva Patterson of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights to Dolores Huerta of the Farm Workers to a whole range of UC students and administrators--their voices and arguments were inspired. And then there was Jesse Jackson. Even veterans of his speeches agreed that this speech was probably one of the greatest they had ever heard him give. From an opening prayer to biblical parables to political analysis, he tied the arguments for affirmative action together with passion and analysis. If Jackson is serious in rebuilding the Rainbow Coalition as a serious political organization, his words and leadership yesterday reignited the loyalty or a lot of folks, young and old.

Regents dismissed the defenders of affirmative action as "tribalists"; maybe so, but the tribe protesting the Regents' decision was a multi-racial tribe that marched and organized together for a common goal. Maybe that's what the Regent fear--they don't want a unified tribe; they want an elite set of individuals sitting on top of a black-brown mass of imprisoned individuals. Turning our society into a unified tribe across race lines and ending institutionalized racism is the last thing they could desire.

THE REPRESSION OF RACE

What was most remarkable about the Regents debate was the almost Freudian repression of the reality of race. Almost none of the Regents arguing for the abolition of affirmative action even tried to defend standardized testing or unequal schools as producing adequate measures of "merit." Instead, they pleaded for the replacement of the broad range of economic and race-based policies presently used by admissions by policies that would only recognize economic need or poor social environments including an "abusive or otherwise dysfunctional home or a neighborhood of unwholesome or anti-social influences."

The Regents could ackowledge that child abuse and poverty could pose challenges for a child's education, but they could not face the idea that racism, independent of poverty or other issues, might be a factor in American society in undermining equal educational attainment. One of the most dramatic moments of the Regents meeting was when Tom Sayles, an African American and the only Wilson appointee to vote "no" on the Connerly-Wilson proposals, highlighted the racism he had faced just a week before while looking for a house to buy. He noted that while he was "battle hardened", most young black and latino kids were not, and that factor had to be taken account of in admissions when evaluating educational success.

There is a temptation by many leftists to try to ride the present populist defense of "angry white male" class consciousnessness, but to give into that temptation by repressing discussions of racial oppression is merely the rancid "populism" of fascism. Whatever you might call it, the rise of fascist ideology in the US epitomized by Pat Buchanan or just "wedge issue" politics, the reality of America 1995 is that class disadvantage is being more readily discussed than honest understandings of the racist oppression that permeate our society.

And getting beyond the individual level of disadvantage, Dean Haile T. Debas of the UCSF School of Medicine highlighted the point that higher education, underwritten by many taxpayers who will never be admitted, exists not only to serve individuals but to serve the broader society. Dean Debas emphasized that affirmative action is a key tool for making sure that communities underserved by professionals end up with adequate health care. He cited a recent UCSF study that "conclusively confirmed what we have long suspected: that African- American and Hispanic physicians return to serve their respective communities, the very communities that NEED more doctors! Hence, if you, the Regents of the University of California, believe that the public underwrites higher education to benefit society, you cannot close your eyes to these compelling findings."

ASIANS, IMMIGRATION AND CLASS ANALYSIS

One of the most divisive elements of anti-AA strategy was to pit an Asian "model minority" against blacks and latinos in a zero-sum scamble for the ever shrinking resources of University education. But Asian community leaders, from Mabel Teng of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors to campus Asian Pacific Islanders representatives, spoke strongly for affirmative action at the Regent's meeting. Jeff Chang, a student leader from UCLA, noted in an article that 60% of UCLA Asian American students had avowed support for affirmative action.

The conservative Regents sought to pit the image of struggling Asian immigrants who pull themselves up by their bootstraps against the image of african-americans from Beverly Hills benefitting from preferences. But as many Asian leaders noted at the Regents meeting, Asian Americans have benefitted from affirmative action in hiring and contracting and that the "glass ceiling" of racism is real for all people of color regardless of income.

Immigration policy and affirmative action also highlight the complexity of simple class analysis based only on incomes--the measure the Regents focused their new policy upon. Even when they immigrated to the US with few funds, the 1965-1975 wave of Asian immigrants to the US consisted largely of highly educated professionals. To this day, Asian immigrants average a higher level of educational attainment than native-born citizens, giving their children an educational boost regardless of income. In the image of the "boot-strap" Asian immigrant is the assumption that a person's class position in their home country disappears when the immigrate to the US, but educational patterns show that class position from abroad is being replicated in the US. Thea Lee of Dollars & Sense has written of the way that many Asian Americans have been able to bypass discrimination by banks through the tradition of informal financial lending pools by families and aquaintenances available to new immigrants. This is a key point highighted by new reports in the weeks following the Regents' vote showing continual discrimination in lending by banks to African Americans and Latinos.

What this highlights is the need for a much deeper analysis by the left of how racism, family educational backgrounds, access to credit, and income all interact to shape class positions in the United States and shape the policies we must pursue in fighting for racial and economic justice.

STRATEGY FOR THE MOVEMENT

October 12th is planned as the first major day of action by the California Student Civil Rights Network and other student forces but it will not be the last. The Network has established close ties with community-based coalitions fighting for affirmative action and te Center for Third World Organizing is asisting the through training and strategy sessions for the long-term struggle. Students are tightly involved in Californians for Justice's work to collect 1 million signatures in support of affirmative action, marking a new evolution in campus-community integration of movements.

Beyond protest, students are planning hard research against the Regents to mount a corporate campaign to pressure them economically to rescind their vote. Goldberg of UC-Berkeley's DIA notes that in order to win, "It'll take a lot of education, but education that is empowering, that is linked to action. We need to harness that education to action that is targetted at the Regents."

There are also discussions by the student activists with the black churches centered around the Rainbow Coalition that are advocating the recall of Pete Wilson. One attractive strategy also being discussed in a broad "Education Initiative" for the ballot in 1996 that would combine requirements for democratic election of the Regents with a restriction that prison spending could not exceed spending on universities.

What is clear is that the emerging student movement is involved in the most sophisticated long-term education and action strategies seen since the anti-Apartheid movement of the early 1980s. And it is a strategy that is explicitly tying the current fight for affirmative action to the whole range of social justice issues from immigrant rights to economic justice.