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"There is no place where affirmative action
is not necessary or could not be improved."

Interview with Graciela Elizabeth Geyer (2000)
U.S. Students Association

Washington, D.C.

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer is the Student of Color Campus Diversity Project director for the United States Student Association (USSA). The interview was conducted (by phone from San Diego) for In Motion Magazine by Nic Paget-Clarke, September 18, 2000.

Initiatives by conservative foundations

In Motion Magazine: What is the USSA's view of the current situation for affirmative action in the U.S.?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: In recent years, affirmative action has been attacked on a state level through the courts and through ballot initiatives that Ward Connerly, in particular, has been promoting. These initiatives and lawsuits are being funded by conservative foundations.

What we've seen in California, Washington, and Texas has been devastating. In response, we have focused on helping students mobilize people to do whatever they could to stop the same thing from happening in their states.

Not just race and gender

Everything that USSA does is about access to education and the belief that education is a right. All people should have the opportunity to go on to higher education if they choose. In a way, everything we do is about affirmative action. Although we may not be lobbying on race-based affirmative action, we lobby on some form of affirmative action. For example, financial aid is class-based affirmative action.

Affirmative action is a broad policy that includes many under-represented and disadvantaged groups. It is not just based on race and ethnicity. It includes students with disabilities. It includes low-income students. It includes first generation students. It includes so many different groups of students who are traditionally shut out of higher education. The attacks though, have been exclusively on race and gender. No one has sued over geographic, alumni, or athletic affirmative action in admissions. I think getting white women to sue the University of Georgia over race-based affirmative action is strategic, to make it look like affirmative action for gender is no longer necessary.

The language we need to take back

Coming into this position, I want to see where everyone is at and refine our strategy. I don't know in which direction it will go yet but I think that a lot of students have felt distanced from fighting for affirmative action because there isn't an initiative in their state or a lawsuit on their campus. Therefore they are made to believe they are not working on affirmative action by working on recruitment and retention. But recruitment and retention of underrepresented students is affirmative action.

On a basic level, it's the language that we need to take back. People of color and women need to take back the definition of affirmative action and re-frame the debate nationally. I'm not saying that is the most important goal, the programs and policies are, but by giving up the battle over language we are already on the defensive. We have already conceded too much. We need a national campaign to increase affirmative action everywhere. There is no place in which affirmative action is not necessary or could not be improved.

Letting the states deal with it

In Motion Magazine: Speaking of politicians, do you know the opinions of the Democrats and Republicans on affirmative action?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: On a federal level actions that have opened opportunities for under-represented people, women and minorities, have come through executive orders. But that hasn't happened recently, in any way, shape, or form. Both parties strategy has been to keep the federal government out of it, mostly because they feel that taking a stance one way or another will hurt them politically. Although some politicians say they support affirmative action, saying it and doing it are two different things. I don't think there is a presidential candidate or political party that has shown they support affirmative action in the recent past. It's pretty clear that the federal government has let the states and courts deal with it on their own, which I think can be dangerous.

Questioning targeted outreach

The terms of the debate have changed from "Affirmative action is the law of the land" to "It's optional to use race conscious policies." In this shift, we have not only moved to the defensive position, we are losing ground. We are forced to defend affirmative action in places where it is very limited and not as strong as it should be. Administrators are afraid to implement strong policies and programs, for fear of a lawsuit. It used to be the exception was not having affirmative action, but now the exception is where and when you can use race conscious policies and programs. The fact that segregated schools are not proof enough for some judges to endorse affirmative action in that school's policy is hard to comprehend.

One case, that has been appealed to the California Supreme Court, has even gone as far as saying that targeted outreach is illegal under Prop 209. The case challenges a San Jose city law that requires contractors to make women and people of color firms aware of contracts, even though they may never hire a minority- or women-owned firm and still be in compliance. I think it's amazing that now even race conscious "outreach" is being challenged. Without it we are back to the old boys network that required affirmative action in the first place. The judge that made the initial ruling said "With 209 the people have spoken," but 209 didn't say anything about targeted outreach. 209 spoke of "preferences", a vague, legally undefined term, which they have manipulated.

Losing an entire generation

In the UC (University of California) system, after 209 passed and the numbers of students of color dropped so dramatically, the UC administration came up with an "outreach plan" targeting schools that are, among other things, predominantly Black and Latino.

They freely admitted that we would not see the results of improving "under-performing" high schools with teacher training and mentoring programs for at least ten years. In the mean time we are losing an entire generation of people of color and women who could be going to the university, to graduate school, and on to be women and people of color doctors, engineers, and lawyers, or professors. In the mean time, they said, "Go to a community college and transfer. That's the solution for the short term." But we know now that the rate of transfer in California has dropped in the past five years. Students are not transferring at as a high a rate as they were before affirmative action was eliminated, and the rate of transfer of people of color has dropped more so. Its just rhetoric to support the appearance of opportunity for people of color.

Percentage plans are deceptive and manipulative because not only do they rely on segregation between public schools, but they fail to acknowledge segregation within a school. The segregation and tracking that reserves "gifted and talented," honors, and advanced placement classes for white and upper class students while tracking poor students and students of color into remedial and vocational classes. This calls the whole notion of percentage plans, very popular with administrators as a replacement for affirmative action, into question.

Percentage plans

In Motion Magazine: How does it call it into question?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: In Florida, Texas, and California the top 20, 10, and 4 percent respectively, of each public high school is guaranteed admission to the state university system. So, this new system relies on the fact that K-12 is segregated in order to guarantee that significant numbers of students of color will be admitted. It is not only inequality in public schools that relegates students of color to an inferior education; it's institutionalized racism. One school in a district will be 80 percent Black students, and coincidentally that will be the school that doesn't have computers, doesn't have books, and doesn't have any advanced placement classes which the university places a lot of weight on in calculating GPA.

These plans recognize that current policies are limiting opportunity for students coming from these under-performing, under-equipped, under-funded schools. But to guarantee that the top percent of every public school be admitted into the university system doesn't guarantee access to the top university.

We are now seeing increased segregation even within the university system. Administrators call it "cascading". It is simply segregation of public universities, where the flagship schools are reserved for white upper-class students and students of color are relegated to lower tier schools. It is reinforcing segregation, and it robs all students of a diverse learning environment critical to a quality education.

The different alternatives they are promoting are guesses at best. In the process they have eliminated the one program that was giving opportunity to students of color. There's nothing wrong with affirmative action. We use affirmative action for all these other categories - student disabilities, low-income students, students from rural areas. Why shouldn't we be able to use it with race when education is still clearly unequal along racial lines.

Constantly being questioned whether I had the right

I went to UCLA. I was admitted in the class of '95 the summer the Regents of the University of California voted to eliminate affirmative action (Regents -- SP 1 & 2). As a senior in high school. the language in the media about affirmative action, about people of color -- I felt like my right to be in school was constantly being questioned. The real question is how you can justify admissions policies that would keep out so many students of color that are successful in school, and which the school gains so much from. Students of color at UCLA are responsible for the ethnic studies programs everyone enjoys; for the administration and student run retention centers that also serve working class white students and first generation students; for a majority of the community outreach programs at UCLA; and even for the outreach models the university is now using. When I was in school, around other students organizing for affirmative action, I realized what incredibly devastating things Proposition 209, SP 1 and SP 2 were.

That's why I got involved. I had the opportunity to go to a good school, but many students younger than me don't have that opportunity.

Conservative attacks are going to increase

I used to think that once those opposed to affirmative action eliminated affirmative action in admissions they would be satisfied. But this is not ending. They are not satisfied with just admission policies. The very need for affirmative action is being questioned, in a day and age of such obvious racial inequality. Not only questioned, they are using the wealth they have, because of this country's inequality, to forward these attacks.

In another case in Georgia, the judge ruled that diversity in education was not a compelling state interest to warrant that the state university consider race in admissions. This is a huge statement to make and have on legal record. The University of Georgia has recently filed an appeal to that case.

Using the race card to divide

In 1978, the last time a case over affirmative action in admissions was heard by the Supreme Court, they ruled that race specific quotas at the University of California Davis medical school were impermissible, but approved taking race into consideration in admissions because diversity was a direct interest of the university. But conservatives have used the Bakke decision to further narrow what affirmative action policies are permissible. That's their interpretation of Bakke. It's very telling however that they are not attacking affirmative action based on income or veteran status -- because they are using the race card to divide people.

I'm scared about the turn the attacks are taking because people are so disempowered by the laws. Eliminating affirmative action should be illegal and it's not. Affirmative action is necessary everywhere. Maybe not the same programs, or the same populations in every school -- but that's what needs to be flexible. People should be able to look at their school and their state and say, for example in California, Vietnamese students are underrepresented at this school, and include them in those policies.

The lawsuits are very frustrating because they are happening left and right, in different states, and all we feel we can do is wait. But I think what people are doing in Florida is amazing, re-politicizing the debate, bringing it back to our elected representatives. People need to have a unified strategy to advance affirmative action not just defend it.

In Motion Magazine: What is the current situation in Florida?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: After last spring's march on Tallahassee, organizations like the NAACP and Florida NOW have organized a speakers panel that is touring the state doing education on affirmative action and voter mobilization. We are fighting not just over what is right and wrong but the definition of affirmative action. In California, for example, 209 passed by using deceptive language, it eliminated affirmative action yet never mentioned it anywhere in the ballot.

In contrast, the Florida court threw out Connerly's language, worded very similar to 209, because it did not give voters a clear picture of what the effects of the initiative would be. That is a significant win in the battle over affirmative action.

We are battling over language, over how we define affirmative action.

Changed the focus

Conservatives have gotten the media to focus on individual cases when the problem of access is on a large scale. Across the country, people of color and women are continuing to be shut out of equal opportunity. The fact that women's wages are still much lower compared to men's wages in the same jobs, with the same qualifications. The fact that people of color are so over-represented in prisons. I don't understand how that's hard to see, how these patterns are hard to see. It seems obvious and plain to me.

I think that a principal success that the anti-affirmative action movement has had is to silence the larger discussion in favor of isolated cases. They have symbolically selected two white women to sue the University of Georgia for race conscious policies so that women and people of color don't see themselves as being in the same lot -- which they are.

As I said, in each case the need for affirmative action can be different. For example, white women are still excluded from faculty positions and from certain majors and concentrations, like the hard sciences, areas of the economy that are expanding.

Affirmative action has to be conscious of race and gender because, people continue to be treated differently based on their race and gender. It's clear that affirmative action has worked because of the success that we have had in integrating some occupations and some schools. Whatever successes marginalized groups have had has a lot to do with affirmative action being effective.

Contributing to furthering democracy

In Motion Magazine: Have you noticed any change in students' opinions about affirmative action over the years?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: After 209 passed, the administration kept talking about how excellent the incoming class was, how it had the highest SAT and GPA ever. Essentially, they were condoning the fact that we didn't have affirmative action any more. When you are talking about how excellent the university is and the number of people of color in the freshman class has dropped by 50% that sends a message to parents and students applying to the school. UCLA was excellent because of its diversity. The media campaign for 209 changed people's perception of what affirmative action did, and how the university talked about it. But it is not something that's irreversible.

We found out in our campus campaign against 209 that a little education goes a long way. We were asking that the administration refuse to implement such a discriminatory policy. We held teach-ins, circulated petitions; in the end 88 students participated in a civil disobedience, and hundreds more in a march and vigil. Many people were supportive of affirmative action but didn't think there was anything they could do about it. Some people were just uninformed. I realized once people understood what 209 was, they felt cheated, and they were willing to put their safety on the line because of it.

Even today young people are still idealistic, they don't believe that anyone would intentionally erode the gains of the civil rights movement. They want to be a part of contributing to social justice, furthering democracy and equality. On our campus, students were really motivated by that. But if popular education isn't happening on a daily basis, and strategically on a national scale, then opponents of affirmative action gain ground with their expensive media campaigns. It's not hard to expose the deception but we haven't been able to do it consistently because we don't have the money on our side that they do.

In Motion Magazine: Will there be particular battlegrounds for affirmative action in the coming period?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: It's pretty clear that Texas, California and Florida are battlegrounds, but the attacks are not isolated to any region. It's interesting because they have high numbers of people of color, though I think it's also because they are very large electoral states in terms of political power. The lawsuits in Michigan and Georgia will definitely indicate what's to come; especially if they are appealed to the Supreme Court, which has been narrowly divided on many civil rights issues.

At the University of Colorado (CU) at Boulder, students have created a plan for diversity, which includes goals and accountability mechanisms, in response to the Chancellor's plan, which does not. Students have asked for an external review of the Chancellor's plan scheduled for this month; that could result in positive changes at CU Boulder. You can compare the plans for yourself,

In California, students are organizing to repeal the Regent's policies SP1 and SP2. With a new governor and some Regent's terms expiring in the next year or two, the situation in California may take a turn for the better.

It's a continuing campaign.

Also read:

Published in In Motion Magazine October 11, 2000.