Affirmative Action Bake Sales: Valid Political Speech or Just Plain Offensive?

By Jeremy Rosenthal ’15

Black-and-white cookies have taken on a whole new meaning in the past few years thanks to a newly popularized form of bake sale. Known as “affirmative action bake sales,” these events are causing quite a stir on college campuses nationwide.

Why have these bake sales inspired protest, condemnation, and university intervention? Unlike your typical church’s bake sale, the price of the goods for sale is determined based on the race and gender of the purchaser. For example, while an Asian male might be charged $1.50 for a cookie, a Latino female might only be charged $0.50. The pricing guide for these sales typically includes prices for male and female Latinos, Asians, Caucasians, Blacks, and Native Americans (neatly mirroring the options given under the demographics sections of most college applications).

The bake sales have been held on university campuses across the country, including one held last September at UC Berkeley. The goal of such sales is to draw attention to the perceived injustice of affirmative action policies. In the case of UC Berkeley, the sale was done specifically in protest of California Senate Bill 185, a bill which was passed by the state legislature to “authorize the University of California and the California State University to consider race, gender, ethnicity, and national origin, along with other relevant factors, in undergraduate and graduate admissions.” Berkeley’s student government, the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), had sponsored an event in support of the bill, and the sale was meant — in part — to show that not all students supported its being signed into law.

The Berkeley College Republicans, who organized the sale, explained the pricing scheme as an attempt to attract a diverse crowd to the sale. As the president of the organization, Shawn Lewis, told KGO-TV, “The pricing structure is there to bring attention, to cause people to get a little upset…But it’s really there to cause people to think more critically about what this kind of policy would do in university admissions.” The organization’s executive director, Andy Nevis, explained why the group decided to use a bake sale to stimulate discussion. “We want to have an honest discussion about the issue…if we’d had a town hall meeting no one would be here, none of this media would be here…this is the way we chose to try to get a dialogue started.”

Understandably, these sales cause quite a bit of controversy and attract extensive media coverage. Though the response to the Berkeley sale was overwhelmingly negative, the sale still took place. Other sales, however – including ones planned at UC Irvine, Bucknell University, Southern Methodist University, and the College of William and Mary – have been shut down by school administrations. The associate dean of students at Bucknell, Gerald Commerford, explained that the bake sale “was a discriminatory fundraising event, which violates our stated, and legally required, nondiscrimination policy that is applicable to all sponsored or authorized events” (as quoted on the Bucknell website).

Over at Berkeley, the College Republicans would no doubt have given Commerford an earful about university-sanctioned discrimination. Lewis wrote an explanatory piece for Berkeley’s newspaper, the Daily Cal, comparing affirmative action bake sales to university admissions. “Some members of the community have been outraged by our event, as they should be! Treating people differently because of the color of their skin is unquestionably wrong, and that’s how we hope people react to the satirical bake sale, along with SB 185. The point is that considering race in university admissions does exactly that — it treats people differently because of their race.”

Similar reasons were given by the organizers of an affirmative action bake sale at Purdue University, home to the Office of Institutional Equality, an office devoted to implementing the university’s affirmative action program. As one member of the student group that planned the sale said, “I don’t think that fighting discrimination with discrimination justifies Affirmative Action” (as quoted by Lafayette Online). The organizer of a bake sale at Texas Tech explained to the school newspaper that though he knew the sale wouldn’t make an obvious impact, the goal was to raise awareness. (It certainly wasn’t to raise money; the sale brought in about $20, which went to covering costs.) When asked to comment on their stance and the likelihood of one being run at Princeton, Brian Lipshutz ’12, the former president of the Princeton College Republicans, said the group “is not planning a so-called ‘affirmative action bake sale’ at this time, and we’ve never run one in my time here.”

Ultimately, the California Senate Bill was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown, though it is far from clear that the Berkeley bake sale had any bearing on that decision. It is difficult to gauge how effective affirmative action bake sales have been, and though they’ve clearly created discussion, not all of it has been meaningful (and much of it has been hateful). The most significant criticism is that the bake sales are offensive. While the organizers of the Berkeley sale made it quite clear that they had no intent to hurt people in this way (and presumably the organizers of other sales didn’t either), it is important to recognize that these sales — whether intentionally or unintentionally — do offend.

However, it is important to recognize the positive impacts of affirmative action bake sales as well. I do not believe the issue is as clear cut as critics make it out to be. My reasons are as follows:

The sales help ignite discussion about affirmative action policies and allow for critical evaluation of both sides of the argument. Changing the context of these policies can help frame the issue in a different light and allow for a different perspective. Bake sales and the college admissions process are not perfect matches, but I believe there’s an interesting exercise in considering the differences between the two.

In a broader sense, the sales call attention to the double standard that seems to exist regarding free speech given to left-wing organizations and that given to right-wing organizations. The responses of some universities to these sales is concerning, to say the least. Universities have a reputation as having the most open of atmospheres. They are supposed to be safe-havens for those who wish to speak their mind, especially those in the minority. While campus-hosted anti-war protests, Proposition 8 rallies, and campaigns to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have, at the very least, been given the opportunity to voice their views – as I think they should have been – it seems that conservative organizations trying to organize protests have been met not just with resistance, but with the quashing of their right to voice their views. Whether you agree or disagree with the principle underlying the sales, the attack on student liberties might be reason enough to support their existence.

And finally, who doesn’t love cupcakes?

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