A student sells baked goods with prices based on a buyer's race, ethnicity… (Ben Margot / Associated…)
BERKELEY — Hundreds of students packed UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza on Tuesday to express their views on the use of race and gender in university admissions decisions -- and to weigh in on the tone of the debate.
The dialogue in this bastion of the free-speech movement was triggered by a bake sale, sponsored by the Berkeley College Republicans, that promised goods priced according to the buyer's race, ethnicity and gender.
The event, met with anger by many students, was timed to counteract a phone bank in support of a bill on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk that would allow the UC and Cal State University systems to consider such factors, as long as no preference was given, in admissions.
Proposition 209, passed by voters in 1996, banned affirmative action in public university admissions. The current bill would not violate that ban. Instead it would permit schools to consider things such as ethnicity, much as they do extracurricular activities, when weighing candidates.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 30, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 103 words Type of Material: Correction
Berkeley bake sale: An article in the Sept. 28 LATExtra section about a UC Berkeley bake sale stated that SB 185 "would not violate" Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in public university admissions 15 years ago. Proponents of SB 185 -- under which the University of California and Cal State University systems would be allowed to consider race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, geographic origin and household income, along with other relevant factors, as long as no preference is given -- say it would not violate the ban. A state legal opinion has said the bill is constitutional, but others challenge that finding.
Under the bake sale's satirical pricing structure, whites were supposed to pay $2 for the same pastry that would cost Native Americans 25 cents. (The Republican club, however, accepted whatever people chose to pay.) Supporters formed a protective barrier around the group's table on Tuesday; Proposition 209 author and former UC Regent Ward Connerly, who is black, showed up to help the students sell frosted cupcakes.
Republican campus clubs have held such sales over the years to challenge racial preference policies. But this time social media spread the news worldwide, prompting outrage and praise for the organizers. The event spawned a secondary debate about civility and respect.
"It's kind of ugly," said 21-year-old gender and women's studies major Tatianna Peck, who held a sign in mock protest of the exclusion of "queer people" from the pricing structure. "It's ... forcing people into a defensive position instead of an honest place of listening."
On Sunday, the Associated Students of the University of California Senate passed a resolution condemning "the use of discrimination whether it is in satire or in seriousness." In a message Monday, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and two vice chancellors endorsed that position and said that the strong reactions to the bake sale provided "a vivid lesson that issues of race, ethnicity and gender are far from resolved."
Anthropology major Damaris Olaechea, 24, and her roommate did their part Tuesday to create "an environment where people can come have dialogue with respect and sensitivity," giving out hundreds of pink home-baked "conscious cupcakes."
But that didn't boost business for the Asian American Assn., which happened to be holding its bake sale fundraiser. Vi Tran, 18, who did her best to hawk the group's "non-racist cupcakes," said she agreed with the Republican students' stance. "I think acceptance should be based on merit," she said, lamenting that the cause had been so clouded by anger.
That anger led a group calling itself the Coalition to stage a silent protest, with hundreds of students -- many of them African American or Latino -- lying down in the heart of Sproul Plaza.
"UC Us Now," their signs read, in a play on words to remind the campus of their presence. "The university has chronically failed to address the appalling lack of diversity," said organizers, who called on Brown to sign the admissions legislation.
Despite the strong emotions, many saw something positive in the debate.
"This has created the dialogue we wanted," said Shawn Lewis, president of the Berkeley College Republicans. "Berkeley is the home of the free-speech movement. We want to be sure it doesn't become the capital of political correctness."