By Robert Weissberg
By now the "Cupcake War" in which the Berkeley College Republicans sold cupcakes with different prices for various ethnic/racial/gender groups is well known. Drawing less attention is why it produced the panicky overkill reaction, including strong condemnations from some university administrators. After all, the anti-affirmative action bake sale hardly threatens the diversity infrastructure and is a far cry from past disruptive student protests. An impartial outsider might reasonably argue that the affirmative action cause would be better served by ignoring the bake sale to deprive college Republicans of any free publicity.
Let me suggest that the true purpose of the outrage is not to stamp out opposition to racial preferences. Rather, the overreaction is best understood as a reaffirmation of a faith that is slowly (but inevitably) going wobbly. And, I suspect, this includes most Berkeley students. If beliefs about the value of legally imposed racial preferences were rock solid, the over-the-top indignation would be unnecessary.
Begin by recognizing that nearly all Berkeley students were born in the late 1980s or early 90s, and grew up in a world profoundly different from us senior citizens who can actually recall when the playing field was really tilted against women, blacks, and other minorities. In fact, even people in their 60s’ and 70s’ today probably had little direct experience with earlier discriminatory policies. Yes, as a 10-year old (I was born in 1941) living in New York City I heard about “colored only” drinking fountains but this knowledge only came from schoolbook pictures and what my liberal parents told me. Still, convincing my generation (and even baby boomers) that affirmative action was necessary to rectify past injustices was an easy sell, since inequality was indisputable and no serious effort had been made to reverse it. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Great Society, compensatory measures and all the rest made perfect sense.
Compare that era to what today’s Berkeley students see with their own eyes—blacks and Hispanics (and to a far lesser extent, women) enjoying immense privilege. More than a few, I suspect, had teachers who clearly owed their jobs to affirmative action versus the old adage about a black having to be twice as good as a white to get the job. And they certainly had textbooks that went out their way to celebrate black history, the contributions of women and minorities while apologizing for past white racial discrimination.
Meanwhile, it would be impossible for them to watch TV and conclude that it slights blacks, Hispanics and females (even on the “conservative” Fox News). These students would also regularly see black scientists and women lawyers in movies. Does anybody not know that blacks and Hispanics benefited from easy mortgages thanks to government pressure? Bookstores are filled with books catering to African Americans and black celebrities are among the highest paid in America. Government has spent billions to eliminate the lingering vestiges of racial/ethnic discrimination and no student can avoid the campus manifestation of this Herculean effort. And surely they must have noticed that we now have a black President and another African-American is doing well in seeking the Republican nomination for president. All and all, the racial equality that was once only a dream in the 1960s has become America’s plain-to-see reality.
Critically, at least for some—maybe most—Berkeley students, this correction of past injustice enterprise may have gone too far. For them “racial injustice” may mean knowing high school classmates with perfect SAT’s turned down by UCLA so as to help an Hispanic kid with slightly above average SAT’s but who spent a year organizing a boycott of Korean-run grocery stores to achieve social justice. In fact, defenders of affirmative action relentless point out that blacks and Hispanics cannot compete unless given a leg up on the white and Asian competition, and this leg up is plainly visible.
This politically inconvenient reality understood, it is no wonder that those still defending compensatory measures must take every opportunity to reaffirm the faith, trot out the historic tales of crushing injustice and punish heretics who question the racial orthodoxy. The parallel is the faith restoring commemorations of past oppression often ritually recounted in religious observances, for example, the Jewish Passover.
In short, stridently protesting the innocuous bake sale is just a welcome opportunity for Defenders of the Faith to reinvigorate weakening beliefs. I suspect that a year from now the Chief Diversity Office will again summon the true believers (and agnostics thanks to the university’s power to compel sensitivity training) to commemorate the Great Cupcake Battle’s anniversary when evil Republicans tried to derail the long march toward racial progress. Select “historically underrepresented” students will be called forth “to give witness” to the benefits of affirmative action, each telling how they were drifting toward crime and welfare dependency only to be saved by their admission to Berkeley. Slices of rainbow-colored cupcakes will be dispensed to symbolize the victorious confrontation. At the end, an effigy of the wicked Republicans will be trotted out, a blessing will be read (“We thank you for diversity, She/He who has given us role models and mentors, She/He who has smitten the enemies of Multiculturalism….”) and the effigy will be stoned “to death,” then burnt and its biodegradable ashes scattered.
The implications should be clear: as memories of real injustices fade, and past victims now enjoy newfound privilege, the old “we were discriminated against” narrative must be forcefully reaffirmed. There is no other way to keep the gravy train rolling and this is of vital important to all those diversicrats whose employment rests on the past victimhood narrative. But who can predict next years’ outrage—selling $16 muffins to government employees, surely a “racist” act since only racists worry about government fiscal extravagance.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at the University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program.