Sometimes the best way to get at the heart of an issue is to reframe the debate–especially when the basics of a policy problem are taken for granted. A good example of this is the estate tax. When you die, the government taxes the estate that you pass on to your heirs if it is above a certain aggregate value. Opponents of the estate tax termed it the “death tax,” creating the counter-view that the government is taxing you for dying. When put in those terms, support for ending the estate tax increased, as many could not see how it’s right for the government to tax a natural, unavoidable occurrence. What’s next, a tax for being born? Getting taxed for being a teenager?
It was in this vein that a conservative student group at Southern Methodist University in Texas decided to put on a bake sale. Not just any bake sale, mind you, but an Affirmative Action Bake Sale. The students charged white males $1 per item, while white women were only charged 75 cents, Hispanics were charged 50 cents, and African-Americans only 25 cents. The idea was to, in a rather blunt way, protest the use of race in college admissions–something SMU happens to engage in.
While certainly not the most tactful or gentle mode of discourse, the bake sale succeeded in its intended effect: pissing people off and starting conversation. It was short-lived, however. Only 45 minutes after being open for business, the bake sale was shut down by SMU after two African-American students complained that the sale was “offensive.” SMU claimed that the bake sale was creating a “hostile environment,” despite there being no evidence of physical aggression or anything beyond the expected heated debate.
Regardless of how you come down on the affirmative action issue, it should make you feel uneasy that a college would be so quickly willing to smother what is obviously political speech. Almost any given protest features some rather crude and inflammatory rhetoric, and proudly so. How else to ensure some media coverage? Colleges are supposed to be a haven for speech of all kinds, and the Dallas Morning News was quick to tell SMU’s officials that they should be “ashamed of themselves.” This goes doubly so for the fact that SMU’s own press release claimed that “SMU has a long tradition of encouraging open debate and considers such dialogue central to its academic mission.” Guess that tradition just got broken.
Despite being closed down, the bake sale did spark some pretty interesting speech from those who were among the offended. Matt Houston, a 19-year-old African-American sophomore at SMU, said, “They were arguing that affirmative action was solely based on race. It’s not based on race. It’s based on bringing a diverse community to a certain organization.” Yes, but a diverse community based on race. That’s how diversity is being defined–whether there are enough African-Americans or other minorities present in the student body. Diversity, however defined, is merely the goal, and on its face diversity is a good thing. But the ends shouldn’t obscure the means.
And then there was SMU junior Kambira Jones, also African-American, who said, “I felt they were attempting to make Hispanics and blacks feel inferior.” It’s funny she should say that, especially in light of Justice Clarence Thomas’ repeated argument that affirmative action programs “stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority.” When a minority group is openly being given a bonus simply for being a member of that group, it’s hard for them not to interpret this benevolence as anything but ‘we don’t think you’d be able to do it without help.’
In truth, to bring the bake sale’s message up to date with the kind of affirmative action program found constitutional under Grutter v. Bollinger, what ought to happen is this: The bake sale sign says “All Items: $1.” Then, as people come to buy muffins and cookies, the organizers simply give more goodies to minorities for their dollar–say, African-Americans are given four goodies, Hispanics three, white women two, and white men one. That way, on the outside everything looks equal, when in the end minorities wind up getting more for less.
You’ll get less protest over this, naturally. People won’t figure out the inequality until they start talking to one another and actively investigate who got what for how much. Although the end results are no different from the original bake sale, people won’t get so ruffled when the discrepancies are done under the table instead of in their face.
And that’s precisely what makes the bake sale such an effective protest–it sweeps away the hush-hush that’s been swept over affirmative action and lays out in stark terms what’s happening. It’s easy to think that college applications flow into a college and then, bingo, out pops a nice, “diverse,” student body. What isn’t so nice is to realize that in between those two points somebody had to choose Person A over Person B because of skin color. Even those who favor affirmative action get uncomfortable over that prospect, which is why they, like Mr. Houston, concern themselves only with the ends and not the means.
This is why reframing the debate, even in a crass way, is valuable to political speech. Sometimes parts of the policy equation are glossed over or swept under the rug. There can’t be a full and fair discussion until all sides grapple with the realities. Life isn’t all cake and cookies, you know.
James N. Markels is a law student at George Mason University.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire