Bake sale free speech, or bigotry?

September 29, 2011

In "The Graduate," Benjamin Braddock travels to Berkeley in pursuit of the scrumptious Elaine Robinson, after finding her to be even more desirable than her mother — and here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

Elaine asks him what he’s doing there and he says he has attended some classes at the University of California at Berkeley, America’s foremost citadel of liberalism, even though he’s not registered. "They don’t seem to mind," he tells her.

When I was talking to my brother just the other day, I mentioned UC Berkeley and he said he had sat in on some classes there, although not registered. "They didn’t seem to mind," Neal said. (Yipes! It’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would put it.)

I told Neal that was almost exactly what Ben Braddock had said in that 1967 movie, but Neal did not remember that scene, and he actually wound up going to graduate school at UC Davis, 50 miles northeast of Berkeley.

I don’t know what rock-ribbed conservatives are doing at a citadel of liberalism, but the Berkeley College Republicans kicked up a fuss this week with an "Increase Diversity Bake Sale" in response to a new crusade to bring back affirmative action in California.

Such bake sales began at Berkeley in 2003 and spread across the nation as conservative students called attention to the perversity of affirmative action. One was at Kutztown University in 2006.

To make a point about what they viewed as Kutztown’s lower admission standards and other special accommodations for minorities or women, students set up a bake sale offering the same cookies, brownies or cupcakes for a descending set of prices, depending on race or gender, with white males charged the most ($1 per cookie).

The students notified regional news organizations about their bake sale protest, but were ignored. It was not until minority groups at K.U. griped about the bake sale that the news media decided to cover it.

The bake sale organizer was a native of South Korea who viewed affirmative action as an insult. Mark Prinzinger felt he did not need special pampering to compete scholastically with whites. (By the way, he later was elected to the East Penn School Board.)

Until Kutztown, most colleges shut down any anti-affirmative action demonstrations and punished students who participated. Those opposed to Kutztown’s bake sale expressed rage that the university let anyone criticize affirmative action.

That, indicated Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, was a seminal moment for those who felt freedom of speech on college campuses should not be a one-way proposition. "Kutztown was … a shining example of defending students’ free speech," he said.

This week’s Berkeley bake sale resulted in an international uproar, but college officials, perhaps following Kutztown’s lead, did not shut it down and did not try to punish the students who staged it. That sale offered pastries to whites for $2 (prices are up everywhere), to Asians for $1.50, to Hispanics for $1, to blacks for 75 cents, and to American Indians for a quarter. Women got an additional 25-cent discount.

Berkeley’s liberals screeched in protest, saying it was "offensive" to use the bake sale to illustrate that affirmative action favoring minorities or women is unfair.

The issue arose because California, which outlawed state-funded affirmative action in 1997, is considering legislation to bring it back. The new proposal says public universities can consider race, ethnicity and gender in deciding student admissions, but adds an oxymoronic provision stipulating that "no preference" will be given.

When the term "affirmative action" was coined by President John F. Kennedy, I warmly supported it. He required that federal contracts go only to companies that treated all employees fairly regardless of race, religion or gender.

After JFK was assassinated, the concept was corrupted into a system of reverse discrimination, and it was not until 1995 that the U.S. Supreme Court ended such preferential treatment in federal programs.

If minorities or anyone else demand preferential treatment, it suggests that they cannot compete as equals with whites. That, as Prinzinger argued in 2006, is an insult. It is the worst kind of bigotry.

The conservative students who stage sarcastic affirmative action bake sales at Kutztown, Berkeley or anywhere else may be annoying, and their methods may offend some people, but their point is valid.

Preferential treatment based on anything other than individual qualification and performance is unfair, no matter what sort of euphemistic label you pin on it.

Schools: University of California, Berkeley