Race to the Cookie Jar
by Ari Armstrong
[The following article originally appeared in the Boulder Weekly on March 4, 2004.]
Last Month [February, 2004], CU Republicans, following similar actions on other campuses, hosted a bake sale to protest affirmative action. They charged minorities lower prices. What elements of both left and right have demonstrated through this affair is a tendency toward pettiness and hypocrisy.
Isn't the left supposed to be the protector of free speech? Why, then, did CU officials attempt to shut down the Republican bake sale? Why did some protesters allegedly vandalize the display and block access to the sale? The First Amendment isn't just for those who share our beliefs. If we really care about the right of free speech, we must passionately defend speech we find most distasteful. Liberty is always lost at the margins.
Protesters who called the Republicans racists are also way off base. The Republicans have a certain point: if minorities should be treated differently in admissions, why shouldn't they be treated differently in other ways? The Republicans believe that affirmative action is itself a racist institution.
The left reasonably counters that affirmative action isn't racist, because it helps certain minorities overcome past injustice. The left further argues diversity contributes to a stronger, more enlightened student body. Thus, the left finds significance in intention. If you treat people differently with the intent to hurt minorities, then that's racist. However, efforts to reasonably help members of groups that have been disadvantaged is prudent and benevolent assistance, and even necessary to help create true equality.
If the left judges racism by intent, though, nobody should accuse the Republicans of racism. Their intent obviously is not to hurt minorities. The price "break" is not meant to help minorities, either: it is meant to point out the perceived hypocrisy of affirmative action policies.
Some leftists seem to think the right does want to hurt minorities. Being a libertarian, I have the advantage of knowing quite a few friends on both the left and right. I can attest that right-wingers honestly think affirmative action is a hindrance to racial equality. They think it fosters the practice of judging people according to their race, rather than according to their character as individuals.
Republicans overreach in claiming affirmative action is inherently racist. However, some of the specific arguments of the right make sense. Isn't it be better to help people according to their income? Some wealthy black families are more "advantaged" than some poor white families. We're still in a moment of history in which the effects of slavery and racist laws linger. But it was the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., not just the goal of Republicans, to move beyond the politics of race and look to the merits of the individual.
The Republicans have another problem. If they favor voluntary interaction, then what's wrong with affirmative action? Few protest black colleges or private scholarships for minorities. The problem, of course, is that CU is funded, in part, by the state, and thus affirmative action there is bound up with tax dollars collected forcibly from some who do not wish to pay. The question is not whether affirmative action per se is good or bad, but rather whether affirmative action as practiced by a tax-funded institution is good or bad.
The Republicans have thus taken a position implicitly hostile to free markets. The fundamental problem is not that a state-funded school practices affirmative action, but that the school is funded by the state. If Republicans really wanted to take the politics out of affirmative action, they would work to take the politics out of education. That many refuse to do so indicates their lack of principle.
Let us pretend, though, that the affirmative-action debate must take place within the context of state-financed education. Is it really that big a deal for either side? I can't feel too sorry for the handful of white students who might get edged out by minority students with similar portfolios. I buy the Democratic line that diversity is good for the student body.
If affirmative action in admissions were ended, on the other hand, would minorities really be harmed? Garnett Tatum, CU's Director of the Department of Equal Opportunity, describes affirmative action as "an outreach program" in which "you go out and recruit people." Surely Republicans don't have a problem with that.
Associate Director of Admissions Kevin MacLennan said his office might consider "ethnically underrepresented populations" as one of many factors. CU looks to various measures of academic success, then also considers the application essay, letters of recommendation, and "other factors" that can include family situation, performing or athletic talent, geography, and, yes, ethnicity. MacLennan said, "There were 5,571 freshmen in last year's freshman class. 792 were students of color." He wouldn't venture to guess how many of those were impacted by race-based affirmative action, but it was "definitely a minority of cases."
In reality, affirmative action in admissions is a peripheral issue. (Much more important is academic achievement in the lower grades). But apparently affirmative action makes better sport in left-right contests than do more important but tedious matters.