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VOLUME 2, NUMBER 19   <> MONDAY, MAY 14, 2001
I bend my head backwards and kiss the Stone,
wishing for more than skill in flattery.
I am a traveling man staying at Fitz- gerald’s in Reno.
Oh, emerald-green stone,
bring me the luck of the Irish that I am!
As my stay ends abruptly,
the casino wins and I lose.
Philip Hackett


Shall we overcome?

A brief announcement, by way of prelude:

On Wednesday, May 16, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action & Integration, and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) will lead a demonstration urging the UC Regents to reverse their ban on affirmative action at the university.

Affirmative action: an offshoot of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, usually described as an effort to level the playing field in employment and education. Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post calls it “the nation’s most ambitious attempt to redress its long history of racial and sexual discrimination.” Former secretary of labor George P. Schultz says maybe so, but “it’s certainly outlived its usefulness. At the time we needed a 2 x 4 [to end discrimination] but the time for the 2 x 4 is gone.” In 1995, the University of California — cheered on by then-governor Pete Wilson — took the lead in replacing that 2 by 4 with a toothpick, banning race- and gender-based admissions, contracting, and hiring practices. The state followed suit, passing Proposition 209 a year and a half later.

Regent Ward Connerly, who campaigned tirelessly for the ban, said at the time, “It is impossible for me to conclude that a preference for some based on race is not a disadvantage, is not discrimination against others.” BAMN, formed almost immediately after the Regents’ vote, sees the matter differently: “A university admissions system without affirmative action would be no more ‘race-blind’ than the society in which it operates.”

bamn.jpg (431584 bytes)
BAMN leaders Ronald Cruz and Hoku Jeffrey

Dangerous folk, those high school and college students who make up BAMN, who describe themselves as an “emerging new civil rights movement.” “Disruptive” is the word others use to describe them. Says UC Student Regent Justin Fong, “As much as they do seem to be a strong voice and a critical voice on campus, they have also been a disruptive voice in terms of student activism.” A Berkeley friend and lifelong progressive grimaced

when I mentioned that I had interviewed members of the group: “They’re very disruptive.”

BAMN was the organization behind the “Day of Action” held at UC Berkeley on March 9 to rally support for ending the ban. The event attracted media attention when its organizers invited local high school students to a special morning class in the history of affirmative action and many teachers jumped at the chance to show the American political process in action.

A lot of horse manure very quickly hit the proverbial fan. The San Francisco School Board, which had first welcomed the idea, suddenly discovered logistical difficulties and called off the field trip. Oakland superintendent of schools Dennis Chaconas expressed the misgivings of many observers: “I don’t see how this is tied into the classroom instruction, and I’m not sure students are going to get a chance to hear both sides of the issue at a rally.” Instead of protesting the illogic of his statement, the public found itself mildly outraged, and DJs of radio stations like KFOG, which tend to reflect middle-of-the-road opinion, echoed Chaconas’s remarks.

What’s going on here? What’s all the fuss about? How could support for an idea that originated so nobly become so suspect?

Perhaps we should lay the blame on the Fuzzy Memory Syndrome, which serves — like the post-partum mechanism that blots out the pain of childbirth — to sugarcoat difficult experiences so that we can get on with our lives. The only trouble with the Fuzzy Memory Syndrome is that it allows us to walk naively right back into the same painful situation we just escaped from, without an iota of wisdom learned from the previous experience.

And so, swathed in a warm glow of nostalgia, we lock arms and sway to the strains of “We Shall Overcome,” forgetting the fangs of police dogs, the force of firehoses, and the frightened faces of little black girls on the first day of school. We forget that once upon a time an American president dared to say to the nation, in an astonishing show of support for the people who were disrupting our system of segregation, “Together, we will overcome.” We forget that, indeed, racial and gender inequalities continue to plague the American dream.

Because it’s all so uncomfortable. Because it’s somehow not quite nice.

What was that old Malvina Reynolds song — “It isn’t nice… But the nice ways always fail.

Betsey Culp