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Two months after the UC Berkeley “Diversity Bake Sale”: Where to now?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | December 1, 2011

Just over two months ago now, the UC Berkeley College Republicans held a “Diversity Bake Sale” with tiered pricing: the same cupcake offered to whites for $2, for example, was offered to Latinos for $1 and to blacks for $0.75.  All women received a $0.25 discount. To the surprise of the organizers, the bake sale provoked hurt, anger, and hostility. The incident brought to the surface racial tensions that remain unresolved and continue to simmer silently across our campus and many others.

The time is ripe for debate and discussion on affirmative policies in educational and employment arenas. As the debate rolls forward, however, it is clear that people are using words like “diversity,” “racism,” and “inequality” to refer to different things. These discrepancies contribute to impasses in dialogue and community building.

One significant conflation emanating from the rhetoric is the equation of the use of race with racism. The Berkeley College Republicans admittedly intended their bake sale to be racist because that’s how they see the use of race in affirmative policy: in this view, any use of race to label and divide people is, quite simply,  racism. How is deciding whether to admit someone to a school based on skin color any different, they ask, from deciding whether someone is criminal or unintelligent based on
their skin color?

This comparison conflates two processes that are not analogous.

Assumptions about criminality or intelligence on the basis of skin color are tantamount to racial stereotyping– that is, assuming personal qualities about someone based on their skin color. Most people can agree that this kind of racial stereotyping is wrong. An analogous stereotype that we should all similarly disavow, yet too often don’t, is the assumption that being white means that one is racist and has nothing positive to contribute to race relations. Sadly, this stereotype is often evoked in response to events such as the diversity bake sale, and it is aimed indiscriminately against both opponents and allies of affirmative policies, demonstrators as well as bystanders (see for example, some of the responses and comments resulting from this blog post).

However, it is critical to note that this differs from considering a person’s background in admissions decisions. This process considers the pervasive structural inequalities that limit minorities’ and women’s opportunities to succeed. For example, schools that serve predominantly black neighborhoods fare significantly worse than those that serve predominantly white neighborhoods. Other societal inequities-minorities are more likely to be targeted for predatory loans, more likely to be targeted by cigarette and liquor businesses, more likely to live near toxic waste sites–do not have a directly comparable structural, macro-level analogy among whites. Additionally, unconscious bias continues to play a role in admissions and employment decisions. Research shows that given two identically qualified candidates for a job, for example, a white candidate is more likely to receive a favorable job offer than a minority candidate. And as I highlight in this post, other research shows that when a female applicant has children, perceptions of her employability tend to decrease, whereas when a male applicant has children, perceptions of his employability rise.

Conflating the use of race and racism and the use of gender with gender bias in these ways threatens to further entrench positions and provoke anger and hostility on both sides of the debate. On one hand, this conflation can lead some to feel that it is legitimate to level accusations of racism against whites only because they are white. On the other hand, the conflation also negates the racials ubjugation, structural injustices, and invisibility experienced by many minority students (“Don’t UC us?” read one sign held by a minority student at the bake sale protest). It’s thus unsurprising that the bake sale organizers underestimated the collateral damage of their event for the campus atmosphere. Confusing these processes propagates misunderstandings, not only of affirmative action policy, but also between the two sides, ultimately narrowing the potential for meaningful dialogue and perspective-taking.

Co-authored with Victoria C. Plaut, assistant professor of law and social science, UC Berkeley

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.

Comments to “Two months after the UC Berkeley “Diversity Bake Sale”: Where to now?

  1. I’m terribly sorry to comment this here. It seemed like the most poignant place to put it. I’m just a small town girl from Oklahoma. I have no higher education, surprise surprise. My dad likes to call us the last true democrats in Oklahoma. Anywho, my sister and I were discussing what the best way to combat racism in college admissions was. We figured that taking race completely off the admissions papers would be the best way. Your university seems like the most likely place to do a study on how that would work out. The admissions interviews would have to be taped, of course, to see if there was a palpable change in how the interviewer treated the young person once they came into the room. Again, I don’t have any real hope of this changing anything, but I figured it was worth a try. Equality always is.

  2. I disagree with this article. The idea of race and racism are two different things, but if the idea of race exists, the potential for the I-hate-you-because-you’re-black racism exists, but the more subtle and unconscious majority-is-always-privileged racism must exist. The surest way to get rid of racism is get rid of the idea of race, or at least acknowledge it as a human idea destined for the trash bin. Eradicating the idea of race would make blacks, whites, browns, etc all the same.

    On another note, there is one group’s stats that supports the College Republicans stance: Asians. In America, Asians are a minority. If it were true that whites were trying to dominate the education landscape by excluding all minorities, why let Asians be overwhelmingly overrepresented at California’s most elite institutions? Why let the student bodies of UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis become majority Asian? Asians achievement is the reason for this overrepresentation.

    I don’t disagree with this article. But the tone sounds like ‘blacks and hispanics are disadvantaged, so their not getting into the UC schools is expected’. I do not accept that. Society and the world does not care about blacks and hispanics in America and their problems. Billions live on less than $2 per day. Nobody cares how crappy the schools are; billions around the world don’t have one. It is time that somebody stepped up and forced these kids to study and get accepted to the UC schoools. The model for the doing this is Asians. No more excuses (even if they are real problems), get it done.

  3. You’re statement that Republicans were confused between stereotyping and addressing structural inequalities is wrong. At least with respect to the bake sale, Republicans were directly comparing different ways of addressing structural inequality. One could try to address structural inequality by providing discounts for products or by adding points to admissions applications. While one method may be more effectual than the other, they are not the apples to oranges comparison you imply. This is not to say that Republicans in general conflate the use of race with racism, but the bake sale demonstration was not such an instance. You are therefore missing the real reason bake sale demonstrations provoke such controversy.

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