Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cupcakes, Affirmative Action and Mass Incarceration

Yesterday Berkeley's College Republicans were generating big crowds on Sproul Plaza and big media coverage with a retread of an old bit of anti-affirmative action agit-prop; a cupcake sale in which prices were set by race (just like academic "preferences" for students of color in admissions, get it). (read Nanette Asimov's reporting in the SFChron here). There was already a large crowd of counter-protesters and reporters on hand by the time I rolled my bike onto campus, otherwise I might have fought my way to the BCR table to buy a half-a-dozen or so. I've always thought affirmative action was a hugely good deal for America (especially white Americans); purchasing, at a very small price, a modicum of legitimacy as it seeks to lead in a world awash in diversity and in the governance of a tremendously unequal and coercive society at home.

However I was disappointed that my fellow progressives mostly fell into predictable response patterns; denouncing any opposition to affirmative action as racist, trying to explain why price discrimination (which of course is a routine feature of our society, try "buying" a loan if you are living in a traditionally Black or Latino neighborhood) is wrong but affirmative action is not, or claiming to have suffered emotional injury by the BCR's tactics. The right loves talking about affirmative action. It's a winning "wedge" issue for them.

An alternative would have been actions focused on California's mammoth prison system and the vast network of sentencing laws that keep it filled largely with people of color (laws which Republicans have supported with unbridled enthusiasm). If College Republicans are offended by educational admissions policies that allow race and gender to be considered as part of a holistic individualized look at the application, what do they think of a state run system in which virtually every aspect of life from cell assignment to job assignment to who cuts your hair is determined by race? Do they support laws that guarantee a steady flow of admissions to prison of men of color, with little regard for their individual culpability or the risk they pose to the community? Where is their outrage for a state that cooperates in handing prisoners over to racist prison gangs so they can return to their communities scarred by racist ideologies, bound into criminal networks, and shadowed by real and imagined enemies?

This system, which has been repeatedly condemned by the right leaning US Supreme Court, has become a vast sink hole into which the state's fiscal and moral capital has been poured, and California's Republican legislators have demanded to keep digging. The truth is that whatever you think of affirmative action in college admissions, it's a tempest in a teapot compared to the category five hurricane of mass incarceration which threatens the health of this state in every sense.

That message would also have put students on the side of thousands of California prisoners who are beginning a hunger strike this week to demand the most basic and humble of human rights. The right not to be confined in isolation from any meaningful activity for years or your entire sentence. The right to have your fate determined by laws and due process rather than invisible administrative judgments. The right to nutritious food, and to not having food used as a punishment. (Read their five core demands here).

Cupcake anyone?

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