The Abolition of Affirmative Action at UC Berkeley

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

Harmony Goldberg

ON JULY 20, 1995, the Board of Regents of the University of California passed SP-1 and SP-2, decisions eliminating affirmative action programs in admissions, hiring and contracting within the University of California system.

In November 1996, the California electorate passed Proposition 209, the initiative that eliminated affirmative action programs in all public institutions in the state. This fall the California State Supreme Court allowed Prop 209 to take effect.

Now the wave of attacks on affirmative action has spread to a national level. Last July, two Republican representatives introduced H.R. 1909, “The Civil Rights Act of 1997,” which would prohibit “advantages” of any kind and end the use of numerical goals and timetables.

What Will This Mean?

For the past two years, student organizers have been speaking about what the elimination of affirmative action will mean, throwing around horrific estimates and predicting doom. Although the Regents made their decision more than two years ago, only with this fall term are we beginning to see the real numerical impact on UC graduate admissions.

Boalt Law School–the UC Berkeley law school–serves as the clearest example. In 1996, 75 African-American students were admitted. This year, Boalt accepted only fourteen African-Americans. None of these fourteen–who, at the top of their classes across the nation, were also accepted at institutions like Columbia, Harvard and NYU Law School–chose to attend Boalt.

Thus the law school had effectively barred the door to students of color, reinventing segregation as a de facto practice. There was a similar drop in Chicano/Latino admissions, a slight rise (3%) in Asian-Pacific Islander admissions and a 10% rise in admissions for white students.

The expectations for undergraduate admissions are similar. According to a university official, the University of California will eliminate affirmative action for undergraduates next April. African-American admissions are expected to drop 50% across the UC system, 75% at the UC Berkeley campus.

There are already only 1200 African-American students at UC Berkeley; this will mean that there will be 400 African American students on a campus of 30,000.  Chicano/Latino admissions will drop around 15-25% system-wide and 30% at UC Berkeley.

Pacific Islander admissions are expected to decline while Asian-American admissions are likely to rise. White enrollment is expected to stay about the same.

Toward Conscious Action

These numbers reveal a reality even more extreme than the predictions. More importantly, they underscore the broader context of institutionalized racism that pervades U.S. society, embedded just as deeply in K-12 educational inequality and standardized testing as it is in the UC admissions process.

Conscious action must be taken to address these institutionalized barriers; ignoring them will not make them go away.  A tendency to confuse work against racism with ignoring race has sometimes made it seem as if we’d entered another political dimension—with self-identified  conservatives quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and saying, “The ideal we are moving towards is a race-less class-less society.”

Much of the debate about UC admissions has revolved around considering socio-economic status/class background instead of race. This argument neglects the fact there is already affirmative action based on socio-economic status in the UC admissions process. Affirmative action organizers have never said that the university should not let in poor white or Asian students.

What we say is that we need more seats in the university. We should not need to be fighting to micro-manage the small percentage of the population that will receive a quality education in this state; there should be enough quality education for everyone.

What Forces Gain?

We need to look at what forces are really at play in this struggle. While our conservative governor, Pete Wilson, is the main target of progressive anger in California, the systematic shifts that are taking place are more important.

California’s white supremacy system is feeling shaky as people of color become our new majority. People of color already make up 48% of the population of California and will be more than 50% by 2005.

The cuts to affirmative action came on top of a conservative wave created by Propositions 184 and 187, and that wave rumbled on to dismantle welfare. The cutbacks to the university system are the result of California’s eroding tax base, and the state’s prioritization of prisons over schools.

These policies, driven by the same conservative forces that drove the cutbacks on affirmative action, are part of the larger cutbacks to social services that capital is pushing around the world. We are living through the systematic elimination of the social contracts that were struck between capital and labor in the 1930s, and the compromise between the civil rights movement and the white supremacy system in the 1960s and ’70s.

Our fight is not about “affirmative action;” it is about building a resistance movement that can win the whole system. We recognize that students can play a key role in that movement. One of our favorite pieces of agitation says, “We have a right to this university because people of color and poor people built this state. This is our university and our land.  And we’re going to take it back…”

What About the Organizing?

The struggle against Proposition 209 and the Regents’ decision has passed through many phases. I will try to outline our organizing at the UC Berkeley campus with some references to the broader movement.

Two years ago, we pulled together an informal network to organize a San Francisco demonstration outside the July 20, 1995, Board of Regents meeting that voted to eliminate affirmative action. We mobilized every one of the twelve UC campuses, drawing a crowd of 2,000.

A broad base of community leaders including Jesse Jackson, Mario Savio and Eva Patterson testified before the Board of Regents about the need for affirmative action. Following about eight hours of testimony, the UC Regents voted to eliminate affirmative action.

With Jesse Jackson at the head, the angry crowd marched off the campus towards planned civil disobedience. Although almost a thousand people blocked a major San Francisco intersection, the police did not arrest anyone. According to a KPFA radio report aired the next day, Governor Wilson had ordered the San Francisco Police Department not to make arrests in order to avoid turning the situation into “another civil rights movement.”

This was a radicalizing moment for many student organizers. “Speaking truth to power” had failed to dislodge the vested political interests of the board, most of whom had been appointed by conservative governors.

A strategy of mass action and direct pressure developed as a means of forcing the Regents to overturn their decision. At UC Berkeley Diversity in Action (DiA) grew out of the informal network that worked on the July demonstration.

This organization began as a majority student of color organization. We based our work on the belief that UC was our university, that the UC Regents decision rendered them illegitimate, and that diversity was essential for academic excellence.

DiA focused on large peaceful rallies, patient mass organizing and coalition-building with staff, faculty, and community organizations.

We faced many challenges that semester–not the least of which were conflicts with a sectarian organization called the Revolutionary Workers’ League (RWL). The RWL decided that they needed to control the UC Berkeley movement, formed a front group called the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), and proceeded to physically and verbally attack student organizing.

They would publish “hit” pieces on our leaders, punch and shove people in the attempt to grab our microphone and push unprepared students into confrontations with police. They would disrupt large working meetings by creating ideological battles about small details.

These destructive sectarians managed to alienate a large majority of students but we eventually learned that a democratic vote asking them to leave would work. (We still haven’t figured out how to effectively deal with them at actions, when they bring their own sound systems to our events and try to claim our work as their own.)

But the RWL also had a more insidious impact. Student organizers became unwilling to put out militant or revolutionary ideas or to engage in political struggle because we felt too much like BAMN. We toned down our tactics, avoiding any ideas they suggested. While most of our organizers were self-identified revolutionaries, you would never know it from the work we put out. We are only now overcoming this level of self-censorship.

Problems of Relations

During the summer DiA made a decision to work primarily among non-organized people. That meant we deprioritized work with the existing student of color groups–a mistake we didn’t really understand for months.

Many of these organizations felt that DiA had taken their political space without consultation, and their non-participation left us with little legitimacy with communities of color on campus. On the other hand, individual activists of color in DiA felt pressure to “represent” their entire community, and many left the group.

Simultaneously the affirmative action issue was gaining mass support on campus.  Since the majority of students at Berkeley are white, this meant that most of the incoming folks were white. While the mass support was good, this shift deepened the alienation of students of color with DiA.

Out of frustration with the moderate tactics of DiA, our conflicts with the RWL and our transformation into a primarily white organization, several undergraduates of color started a more militant grouping called the No Name Collective.

No Name organized around the idea that people of color needed to be in leadership of the organizing for affirmative action, that we needed more militant actions and that racism was the real issue, not “diversity.” The formation of No Name was important in terms of developing a separate sphere for more radical student of color organizing.

Indigenous People’s Day

After some tense initial work together, DiA and the No Name Collective eventually merged during the work towards a national day of action for affirmative action planned for Indigenous People’s Day, October 12th. This merger was brought about by the women in the organizations, who came together to support each other in resisting the sexism we were facing in both organizations.

On October 12, 1995 students around the state organized walkouts and demonstrations. At UCLA students organized a rally of 7,000 and staged a civil disobedience sitdown at the corner of Westwood and Wilshire Blvd.

UC Berkeley’s event, organized to link affirmative action with struggles for ethnic studies and indigenous rights, drew 10,000 people at its peak. One thousand marched through the surrounding communities of Berkeley and North Oakland in a failed attempt to take over a local freeway.

This day was probably the height of unity and participation. We had acquired a high level of mass organizing skills: coordinating flyering, classroom presentations, building ad hoc coalitions, gathering speakers and performers, and organizing a security team. But it also revealed our problems: low political analysis, no ideas about how to deal with the line of police who were blocking the entrance to the freeway and seeds of division that were rooted in both political and personality conflicts.

The Two-Year War

The Regents were determined to meet our challenge by repeatedly tabling proposals to rescind the vote and by clamping down on all civil disobedience actions. Campus police would search us before we could enter the meeting room and drag us away from the podium if we spoke for longer than thirty seconds.

In addition to the actions we organized at Regents’ meetings, we occupied campus administration buildings and disrupted formal dinners the Regents held in fancy hotels around San Francisco. But as we focused on the actions rather than on the mass organizing we became a tighter and more explicitly radical group of student organizers, but we grew significantly smaller.

Many of the organizers who had concentrated on affirmative action shifted their work to other sectors. Some organized new student organizations, or developed a training program to deepen our skills and analysis and to contribute to the work against Proposition 209. Others ran a conference on “Revolution: Rhetoric or Reality” as a way to begin dealing with some of the barriers that we had come up against. Still others focused on recruitment and retention of students of color, hoping to offset the disastrous effects of the Regents’ decision.

Although both DiA and No Name had fallen apart by the end of the spring semester of 1996, the development of these new efforts allowed new political forces to develop on campus, and opened spaces for leadership development in different spheres.

With the Proposition 209 referendum coming up in November 1996 the statewide network shifted its focus towards voter registration and education. Many of us worked with the statewide grassroots organization, Californians for Justice (CfJ), dedicated to winning the vote and building long-term power in low-income communities of color in California.

This requires changing the skewed demographic of a state where the electorate is 20% people of color when the population is 50% people of color.

On the Berkeley campus several former DiA organizers formed an organization, Students Against 209. These students had been disillusioned with the “jumping from action to action” strategy; they felt that the lack of consistent organizing between direct action periods was the root of the campus’ political fragmentation.

This round of political work was much more single issue than any other point in the struggle and many of us worked with the expectation of losing the fight.

Discussions about possible response actions began the week before the vote. On election night we didn’t even bother to watch the returns; instead we spent our time planning for the next day, for an occupation of the campus’ Campanile clock tower.

We saw the clock tower as the symbol of the Ivory Tower. We meant to re-claim that symbol of the university and say that we would not allow anyone to turn back the clock on communities of color in the university.

MEChA and Students Against 209 organized the occupation. Five Chicanas chained themselves inside the tower, hanging a banner that said “Revolution” from the top. About 200 students spent the entire night at the tower, sharing food and stories and preventing the campus police from taking the tower to arrest the protesters chained inside.

That night was the most powerful single event during the affirmative action struggle. Passing the megaphone around allowed a democratic space for political ideas, and the over-all political level was much higher than we had ever seen before.

That night was incredibly open, with a diverse group of students sharing food, cultural traditions and protest songs. It felt like a people’s church where we celebrated each other, united under our common belief that what is happening in the world is absolutely wrong–an organic expression of the unity of culture and political organizing.

Mario Savio died that evening, and some of his former comrades came to share his history and encourage us to continue in his tradition. We fell asleep at 3:30AM to the bells of the clock tower ringing (which quite honestly sounded like freedom).

Police Charge, Popular Anger

Without warning campus police moved in at 5AM with pain holds and batons ready. The next two days saw an outpouring of protest, with marches around campus, teach-ins and fruitless negotiating sessions with the campus administration.

This round of activity hadn’t change anything, but it re-ignited campus organizing and laid the beginnings of a network among the next wave of organizers. Spontaneity born out of anger served as an important spark to pull new forces into the struggle. People acted from their hearts, and it worked.

Our unsuccessful struggle to shift from spontaneity to a longer-term organizing plan at that stage highlighted the need to establish an ongoing multiracial political organization in campus.

The last round of organizing came early this fall, after a three-member panel of the State Supreme Court lifted the injunction against the implementation of Prop 209. We held an occupation in Sproul Hall, the campus administration building.

Campus police responded with pepper spray and batons. The streams of pepper being sprayed over the crowd covered the local papers the next day.  Police arrested two students during this event, and eight other students face delayed charges after being identified as the leaders of 209 campus organizing.

This led to a new level of anger on campus and cemented the network of new organizers.  Students held meetings throughout finals to develop a multi-issue political organization that would carry us into next semester, the Student of Color Solidarity Coalition (SCSC).

This organization is the first explicitly radical political coalition among student organizations of color that the UC Berkeley campus has seen since the United People of Color organization that worked during the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s. We plan to organize campaigns that combine mass organizing with direct action, and we will run internal political education for the organizers.

The Coming “Battle of Berkeley”

In retrospect, much of our organizing did not make the “right” political choices. But we see it as a process that we had to go through as student organizers.

We had come onto a campus organizing scene that had no multiracial organizing networks, no developed revolutionary formations and few experienced organizers. We are now at a stage where there is a functioning multiracial core of organizers who are connected with the student organizations of color, who understand basic organizing ideas, who understand the level of organization that we will need to win real victories, who have a decent level of common political activity and experience with police violence, and who are committed to long-term revolutionary social change.

SCSC is mapping out a plan for next year, working to build our capacity to deal with the crisis we will face in April 1998, when the university releases next year’s admissions statistics and admits a undergraduate class without affirmative action.

We plan to wage a “Battle for Berkeley,” making sure that the world knows that we will not allow our university to function without affirmative action. We plan to use this fight to turn back some of the recent cutbacks in California and stem the threat to affirmative action that is now rising across the country.

ATC 71, November-December 1997

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