Did Berkeley's 'racist' bake sale go too far?

College Republicans at the University of California in Berkeley held a bake sale that priced baked goods at different prices for different ethnicities. Was it effective satire or over the top?

Ben Margot/AP
A student sells pastries during a bake sale led by the Berkeley College Republicans Tuesday at the University of California in Berkeley.

The bake sale was supposed to be a satire, bringing attention to what organizers feel is a discriminating and racist bill, now on the desk of California Gov. Jerry Brown, that would allow the state's university systems to consider race, ethnicity, and gender in admission decisions.

By the measure of media exposure, the Berkeley College Republicans' event was an unqualified success, making headlines across the country for the peculiar pricing system on its baked goods: $2 for whites, $1.50 for Asians, $1 for Latinos, and so on.

By the measure of satire, many thought a stunt that organizers acknowledged was "inherently racist" went too far, with the Berkeley student association condemning the methodology and school administrators endorsing that position.

By the measure of Berkeley itself, however, it was in many ways business as usual. As the home of the free-speech movement, Berkeley is nothing if not opinionated.

Two hours after the bake sale opened Tuesday, a counterprotest was already in full swing, with black-clad students lying down in the main campus quadrangle. Other groups distributed pink "conscious cupcakes" as a why-can't-we-all-just-hold-hands alternative.

Earlier this month, when Berkeley's "protest season" began, students angered by tuition hikes occupied a campus building, with several protesters throwing rocks, bottles, and chairs at police officers. In March, the same topic led six protesters to chain themselves together and stand on a fourth-story ledge.

“This has created the dialogue we wanted,” Shawn Lewis, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, told the Los Angeles Times. “Berkeley is the home of the free-speech movement. We want to be sure it doesn’t become the capital of political correctness.”

But some analysts say the message of the event may have been lost amid the confusion and anger that accompanied it.

“What events like this do more than anything is bring attention and media coverage, but as far as providing rational debate, they don’t work until things have calmed way down,” says David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision LLC, a public relations and political consulting agency. “It becomes more about anger than thinking when the event goes over the top and people get turned off.”

The bake sale was taking aim at Senate Bill 185, which would allow the universities in the California and California State systems to consider race, gender, ethnicity, and national origin in admissions, so long as those factors do not become a determining factor. SB 185 seeks to mitigate Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in state institutions in 1996. Proponents of SB 185 say it does not run afoul of Prop. 209 because it says race can be considered only as one criteria among many.

This reading of the law should pass legal muster, says William Tierney, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California, which is not part of the state university system.

“Simply because the law says that race, gender, and nationality can be taken into account doesn’t suddenly mean that whites or Asian Americans are suddenly in danger of being discriminated against,” he says.

The Berkeley College Republicans disagree, so when the Berkeley's student association set up a phone bank to encourage students to call Governor Brown and lobby for SB 185, they took a page from the playbook of college Republicans nationwide. Indeed, the Berkeley College Republicans didn't invent the idea of a "diversity bake sale." The Wall Street Journal cites one at the University of California at Los Angeles as far back as 2003.

But combine the rise of social media with Berkeley's leftward tilt, and the result was a media explosion.

When the Bucknell University Conservatives Club initiated what they called an anti-Affirmative Action bake sale in 2009, the university shut it down.

“The students did not follow the rules that all student groups must to host events in campus spaces, and did not offer the option to customers to pay whatever
price they wanted,” says Bucknell spokeswoman Julia Ferrante. (The Berkeley Republicans offered the prices only as recommendations.)

“Instead, all prices were based on race, which violates laws against discrimination and the university's related policy against discrimination," says Ms. Ferrante. "We therefore ended the event.”

At Berkeley, Chancellor Robert Birgenau released a statement saying the strong reactions to the bake sale provided “a vivid lesson that issues of race, ethnicity and gender are far from resolved."

To some, the bake sale represented a backward view. The satire "is rooted in the historical and racial contract fabric of white supremacy and the decline of whiteness in a continuous browning society,” says Chad Dion Lassiter, president of Black Men at Penn at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice.

To others, it directed a spotlight toward an issue that needs discussion.

“It was a great way to start a conversation – and for sociologists that is always good,” says Lori Brown, a sociologist at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.

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