Children flinging poo to get attention: dipshit College Republicans (there is no other kind) at UC Berkeley have been loudly touting their “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” – a racist provocation that has been standard fare for campus right-wing groups for 10 years or more. The gag is simple: they offer cupcakes for sale with prices set by race, with whites paying more and people of color getting lower prices as a form of “affirmative action”. This seems stupid, and so they figure they have scored some kind of point against affirmative action for things that really matter.
The real point, of course, is to anger people who actually care about race issues, and to get attention for themselves. It usually works. This week, there’s a lot of media attention, and both the UC campus student organization and the university administration have issued condemnations. But as student-activism scholar, and sometime Lean Left commenter, Angus Johnston points out, even these reactions have generally missed the mark.
On Sunday night ASUC — Berkeley’s student government — unanimously passed a resolution that, after a page of careful laying out of the various jurisdictional issues and imperatives involved, “condemn[ed] the use of discrimination whether it is in satire or seriousness by any student group.”
And yesterday Berkeley’s chancellor sent out an open letter on the sale. The event, he said, was “hurtful or offensive to many” at Berkeley, though he didn’t say why. It was not the politics of the sale, he implied, that were problematic, but the form of their expression: “Regardless what policies or practices one advocates, careful consideration is needed on how to express those opinions.”
Absent from each of these formal statements was any explicit statement of what exactly was wrong with the Republicans’ sale. (ASUC indicated that actually selling treats to certain students at reduced prices might violate anti-discrimination regulations, but of course actually selling stuff was never the point of the event.) . . .
[Chancellor] Birgenau wants to make the debate about the bake sale a debate about how polite the Berkeley community should be. But that’s not what it’s about, on either side. It’s about who should be allowed to enroll in the university, and on what terms.
Maintaining a professorial neutrality, Angus also doesn’t offer a detailed critique of the bake sale. It is obviously mean-spirited, and obviously fails to engage its nominal subject in any intelligent or substantive way. But what exactly is wrong with it, and why exactly is it a bad thing for them to be doing? Here’s how I understand the issues:
First, start with the fact that it’s deliberately provocative. It’s a parody of affirmative action policies such as scholarships for the underprivileged, and an expression of the right’s generally parodic understanding of affirmative action in general as being “special benefits for minorities and women”. (I’m not aware of any affirmative action program that consists of explicitly race-based price discounts for retail items, but I’m willing to bet these CR morons don’t actually know that their price list isn’t a real form of affirmative action.) It trivializes the issue of racial privilege and affirmative action by applying it at a trivial level, to frivolous items, and creates a parody instance of the right’s characterization of affirmative action as “reverse discrimination” with whites as victims. By moving the entire issue onto a silly and false footing, they mock the issue and the people it addresses.
Second, it makes no sense. There’s no way a bake sale “increases diversity”, and “diversity” and “affirmative action” aren’t the same thing. Again, the whole thing is just an expression of the right wing’s stupid and willfully ignorant understanding not only of race issues but affirmative action in general. In the same way that the right approaches every political and social issue by simply pushing buttons to generate canned responses from their followers, and mouthing code words and slogans that don’t actually mean anything – “family values”, “protect our children”, “traditional marriage”, “pro-life”, “fair tax”, “socialism”, “death panels” – they regard race as just another issue to demagogue with its particular set of meaningless and interchangeable code words: “diversity”, “affirmative action”, “reverse discrimination”. As an approach to its actual topic, the bake sale is not just provocative, but consists only in provocation. It claims to be more than just a demonstration or protest – the pricing scheme is apparently intended as a symbolic commentary on race-based aid programs, and as such substantive and meaningful – but it is in fact grounded in stupidity all the way down to the level of vocabulary. Yet for the right, being incoherent and dishonest is just a tactic, not an embarrassment.
But there is more than just that involved.
As a provocation, the stunt is crude and self-centered. It’s a childish act of mockery mostly intended to gain attention for its perpetrators – to make themselves interesting and relevant in a way that avoids taking an articulate position against helping people hurt by racism and racial history, and taking responsibility for that indifference. By treating their own chosen issue as a joke, they treat the concerns of those who take the issue seriously, and the harms that affirmative action seeks to address, as a joke. Just as right-wingers can’t see the history and reality of racism as real, and so see no problem elevating “reverse racism” as a response to affirmative action – because racism in America is all about white people’s problems – these clowns can’t see a difference between their own stupid joke and a serious social issue that affects other people’s lives. For Republicans, complaining about the inconvenience to white people of helping under-represented groups is a civil rights issue fully equivalent to, and more important than, doing something about the social consequences of hundreds of years of slavery, segregation, and racism.
So the stunt is wrong not just because it’s cruel and childish, and not just because it’s stupid and ignorant. It’s wrong because it’s a selfish and self-centered display of moral blindness – a false equivalency between racism and the attempt to make up for racism, a deep inability and unwillingness to see the difference between privilege and lack of privilege. It’s a fundamental, and to a large degree deliberate and gleeful, act of moral perversion – a self-centered demand for more privilege by the privileged out of a sense of entitlement so pervasive it is impervious to fact, feeling, or a sense of decency.
Complaining that you’re being harmed by other people objecting to your privilege is pretty much what the GOP is for. “’In order to move society forward, we’ve got to look past race’ said Derek Zhou, vice president of [College Republicans]. Yep. The same people who think the Confederate flag is “a symbol of heritage” also think it’s imperative to “look past race”.
PS: Live-blog of the event at UCB here.