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A Student Organizer’s Perspective
On Affirmative Action

“One of the strongest arguments for affirmative action
is that it’s taking us in the right direction.”

Interview with Nicholas Centino
United States Student Association
Washington, D.C.

Nicholas Centino is the Student of Color Campus Diversity Project Director for the United States Student Association Foundation (USSA). This interview was conducted for In Motion Magazine by Nic Paget-Clarke, November 4, 2002

Appealing the University of Michigan decision

In Motion Magazine: Can you tell me what’s the latest with affirmative action?

Nicholas Centino: What’s getting the most press is the Supreme Court appeal of the 6th Circuit Court decision concerning the University of Michigan affirmative action policies with their law school. (see also: Interview with Monique Luse, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Interview with Ayanna Hawkins of Americans for a Fair Chance) Essentially what has happened is that CIR (the Center for Individual Rights) has filed an appeal of that decision which supported the affirmative action policies. CIR represents the plaintiffs (those opposing the affirmative action policies) in both the case concerning the law school and the case challenging the undergraduate school.

In Motion Magazine: Have students been organizing around this upcoming decision?

Nicholas Centino: Students have been organizing around the case in terms of knowing what the implications of a negative decision in the Supreme Court case would mean to other campuses. A lot of folks are putting a lot of importance into this case, and there is no doubt that this is an important case; but students are also still struggling and still organizing for improvements in their affirmative action policies on the campus level as well.

On one hand you have people who are saying that this court case is “The life and death for affirmative action” yet are saying nothing about the weaknesses in many university’s affirmative action policies. On the other hand, we have students who are keeping track of this case while at the same time they are organizing to increase the representation of under-represented students on their own campuses. I’m not saying that student activists aren’t concerned with this case, but most student organizers are saying, “Yes, we are concerned about this court case but what power do we have over the Supreme Court?” A march on Washington is a great way to show support for affirmative action, but it is highly doubtful that that march could sway a Supreme Court justice. Why? Because the power dynamics are off. The Supreme Court isn’t directly accountable to a grassroots majority. We can’t vote them out of office, nor can we impeach them: they hold those positions for life. The only power we have over the Supreme Court is to vote in or out the politicians that appoint them. As I mentioned, a march or rally in support of affirmative action is great way to show support and educate people, but it lacks teeth.

Students are dealing with the ramification of the Michigan cases in their own way. Students from Wisconsin are concerned because the person that crafted the admissions policy at the University of Michigan also crafted the affirmative action policies in Wisconsin. They are concerned from the angle of looking at how this will affect their campus.

On the other hand, students in California are concerned about the case but it’s not one of their top priorities. For California, their priorities are more along the lines of the Racial Privacy Initiative and other issues on their own campuses.

People are concerned about the case but they are also working on improving the representation of students on their own campuses. There are both local and federal levels.

Diversity / Remedy past discrimination

In Motion Magazine: What would be the impact of this decision?

Nicholas Centino: There is a vein of argument out there that it would wipe out the ability to use race or gender or even ability in consideration for recruitment and retention and admissions policies. This is the worst-case scenario.

(The background for different views on this is) what we had happening in the Bakke decision (University of California Regents v. Bakke, 1978) was not a re-definition of affirmative action but a fine-tuning in terms of policy and the emergence of the “diversity argument.” The initial argument in support of Affirmative Action stated that we need affirmative action to remedy past discrimination based upon your race, gender, etc. in education. This argument was rejected by the Supreme Court. However, what the Supreme Court did find permissible was the use of Affirmative Action to enhance the diversity of a university. This argument stated that a school can use affirmative action for the sole purpose of increasing the educational quality of all students because a diverse campus equals an excellent and enlightened campus.

For a lot of students, the remedy argument is a much stronger case for affirmative action than the diversity argument primarily because in terms of social responsibility it places the university, as a public institution, as socially responsible to the people that it serves.

With this case, a lot of folks are watching it closely but as to predicting what will come out it I think it’s too early to say.

In Motion Magazine: When is the Supreme Court expected to decide?

Nicholas Centino: The last I heard, it’s expected to be heard this year.

Take Affirmative Action Day

National Take Affirmative Action Day (NTAAD)
Campus Highlights
by Nicholas Centino

Grand Valley State
At Grand Valley State in Allendale, Michigan, students used a Halloween theme to educate their campus community on the need for Affirmative Action. Over 50 tombstones and 25 four foot ghosts were displayed throughout the campus with facts on the under representation of students of color and women in higher education. In addition, students tabled at two central locations where they distributed information regarding Affirmative Along with pieces of candy. According to Allison Kranz of Grand Valley State University’s Students Against Sweatshop, they received positive feedback from students regarding their campus blanketing.

Vanderbilt University
At Vanderbilt University in Dayton Ohio, student leaders facilitated a discussion forum on Affirmative Action. Over 100 people turned out for the event, including prominent administrators and professors of Vanderbilt. An important theme of the discussion was questioning other forms of “preference” such as legacy admits. The event was organized by the Student Government association and received local press.

Georgetown University
NTAAD fell during Georgetown’s Diversity Week activities. On Monday the organizers hosted a diverse cultural celebration to break up the monotony of studying at the Leavey Study Hall. On Tuesday, the Georgetown Student Association hosted an open house to encourage students to get active. For NTAAD the Diversity and Religious Affairs committee tabled at the student center, distributing stickers, and information in support of Affirmative Action. Later that afternoon, they presented an Affirmative Action panel, featuring speakers from Americans for A Fair Chance and USSA. These events were designed to begin the forging of a strong affirmative action coalition on campus.

University of Pittsburgh
Students at Pitt hosted a rally followed by a teach-in at the student union. The teach-in was presented by the office of Affirmative Action and facilitated by Nicholas Centino of USSA. At the teach-in students expressed their concerns with the Affirmative Action policies at Pittsburgh and vowed to continue to work on the issue further. As well, free slices of pie were offered at the rally and teach-in, reminding students to demand their fair share of the pie.

University of Florida
At the University of Florida in Gainesville, Students organized class discussions on affirmative action leading up to NTAAD. On the 30th, U of Florida hosted a student speakout from 11 a.m. to noon featuring students from USSA, the Black Political Science Association, and the NAACP. Later that night a forum was entitled “National Take Affirmative Action Day, making a difference in higher education.”

Oregon Student of Color Coalition
The Oregon Student of Color Coalition of the Oregon Student Association coordinated efforts from its chapters across Oregon. Portland State University hosted an open mike and speakout. Oregon State University organized a debate on Affirmative Action. University of Oregon hosted a workshop and teach-in on the effects of dismantling Affirmative Action. At Rouge Community College and Lane Community College, teach-ins were hosted on Affirmative Action from past to present. These campuses in addition to Southern Oregon University and Western Oregon University participated in a coordinated call-in campaign to the gubernatorial candidates informing them that as voters, student will support candidates who are friendly to student issues like Affirmative Action.

University of Wisconsin Madison
Students at UW Madison rallied on Library Mall in Support of Affirmative Action. At UW Madison, students of color represent 8 percent of the population, however. A disproportionately larger percent of Wisconsin residents are people of color. Students highlighted not only the intellectual imbalance caused by a lack of diversity, but economic concerns as well. The Associated Students of Madison, the Multicultural Student Coalition and the United Council (UC) of UW Students coordinated the rally.

University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (UWM)
In a program organized by the student association of UWM, and the coalition For diversity, students marched and rallied to make sure that the second phase of the Milwaukee commitment remains strong! The Milwaukee Commitment is UW Milwaukee’s diversity plan, which was radically weakened by the administration last year. Since then students have organized to strengthen the Milwaukee agreement. The march and rally sought a commitment from the chancellor to support the Milwaukee agreement. The rally featured a band and a statement from a local politician.

In Motion Magazine: You recently had a day of activity around affirmative action?

Nicholas Centino: On October 30 we had the second annual National Take Affirmative Action Day.

In Motion Magazine: What happened then?

Nicholas Centino: National Take Affirmative Action Day was created last year to focus attention on affirmative action as not only an aspect of admissions policy but also as a means of recruitment and retention of underrepresented students. It was a day for students to take action on their own behalf and demand that their universities take affirmative action in their policies to recruit and retain, as well as admit, underrepresented students.

We had 35 plus schools in 14 states performing actions that day. We had everything from students who hosted teach-ins and speak-outs to public art projects, marches, and rallies (see column on right).

For example, at Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. they had a weeklong activity celebrating diversity. On the actual day, they had tabling activities as well as a speakout forum on the effects of affirmative action. At the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, they had an action demanding an increase in their affirmative action policies. They divided it into two days. They had a scavenger hunt for institutions and campuses that have benefited from affirmative action and a testing station where they had SAT and ACT tests which were created not like an ACT and SAT which favors white male students but which were construed so you could only pass if you were of an ethnic background or a woman. At the University of Florida they had a teach-in.

The organization Americans for a Fair Chance helped us out tremendously providing speakers as well as media coverage. Also we co-sponsored the event with the NAACP Youth and College division. Their chapters sponsored the National Take Affirmative Action Day around the country.

The Racial Privacy Initiative

In Motion Magazine: You mentioned the Racial Privacy Initiative in California. What’s that?

Nicholas Centino: In California, Ward Connerly, the architect behind Proposition 209 which (in 1997) eliminated affirmative action in state agencies in California, has a new initiative out -- the Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI). Officially it’s called the “Classification by Race, Ethnicity, Color or National Origin.” Initiative. It’s being dubbed the Information Ban by its opponents.

Essentially, if passed it would bar the collection, analysis, or use of information concerning race and ethnicity by state and local government with a few exceptions. So for example, after the year 2012, the department of fair employment and housing in California would no longer be able to investigate claims of racial discrimination. It would be illegal to track a community’s susceptibility to certain environmental hazards but it would be legal to racially profile certain communities by law enforcement agencies. The bottom line is that the racial privacy initiative would make racial discrimination impossible to prove.

How this effects higher education is that there would be no way to prove that certain communities are under-represented in higher education. The information just wouldn’t be there. This definitely is of concern to a lot of students as well as to other community members. Currently a coalition has been formed called the Coalition for an Informed California consisting of Californians for Justice, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), other community groups, and students including the California Student Affirmative Action Coalition which was one of the major players in the repeal of Standing Policy 1, which was the University of California’s own ban on affirmative action.

The initiative is scheduled to go to a vote in 2004 but folks are already mobilizing on it. The general idea about the Racial Privacy Initiative is that folks are learning from the mistakes made in the campaign to stop proposition 209. Folks are starting early in defeating this proposed legislation.

In Motion Magazine: Why do you think Connerly is doing this?

Nicholas Centino: Connerly’s argument is that the government as a whole has no business in knowing what your race is. That race is a private matter. That even acknowledging race is a form of racism. But as long as race counts, we have to count race. This measure is designed to sweep any evidence of racism, incidental and systemic, under the rug.

Interestingly, one of his points of argument is, “What do multi-racial, bi-racial people do?” That multi-racial, bi-racial people are deeply offended by having to choose one box or another. This, of course, is total nonsense, since it was multi- and bi-racial people that successfully fought for federal legislation that allows people to choose to mark multiple boxes. Of course, a person can choose to not mark a box. We already have racial privacy concerning that. I don’t to get caught up on checkboxes though, because the RPI is much more destructive than that.

The initiative is not only limited to education. It goes into other agencies as well. A big area of concern is housing. If redlining exists then there is no way to prove that. If there is discrimination in housing there is no way to prove that.

A big fear about this initiative is that like 209 California is being used as a tester state. Depending on how it fares in California we may see similar initiatives in Washington, Georgia, Florida, etc.

Some people see the Racial Privacy Initiative in 2004 as a make it or break it. But others are concerned about the overall push behind it.

What is very interesting about this initiative is that though Ward Connerly is more or less associated with the GOP, during the tight gubernatorial race folks in that party didn’t want issues like the Racial Privacy Initiative potentially alienating Republican voters or cutting into their vote. Even folks who supported 209 are seeing troubling issues with this initiative. They see it as something dangerous and harming. It’s bad news.

Why Affirmative Action in 2002

In Motion Magazine: What do you say to people when they say, “Why do you need affirmative action in the year 2002?”

Nicholas Centino: I say, look at the numbers. There is a great website, the National Center for Educational Statistics and the numbers speak for themselves. Folks of color are still under-represented at all levels of education. Women who make up a slight majority in undergraduate education are still under-represented on the graduate level. Specifically within certain disciplines, primarily engineering and math.

What folks need to understand is that affirmative action, as it exists today, isn’t the end-all and be-all solution to inequality in terms of racial or gender inequality in education. It’s definitely one of the building blocks of programs that address it, however we need to look at inequality also within secondary and primary school as well. That’s where folks get tracked into certain schools, where opportunities are missed for a lot of students, primarily because they go to a certain school in a certain area that just happens to be populated by folks of their same ethnicity or same economic background.

We still need these programs because these programs are taking us in the right direction. However, as students will tell you, “they are good but they can be better.” And that’s one of the big missing elements of the so-called debate around affirmative action: those students who are “struggling to keep the doors open for those yet to come.” These are the students who feel a social responsibility to make higher education a viable option to those who have been denied it for so long. It is these students who are the real experts on Affirmative Action, not the talking heads on the television. One of the reasons why we had the National Take Affirmative Action Day was to remove that silence imposed on these students; to put the spotlight right on them.

As I said, one of the strongest arguments for affirmative action is that it’s taking us in the right direction. It’s the students who are pushing it that much further to make it that much more effective, to get this society that much more equal.

Modern Affirmative Action

In Motion Magazine: Have the methods for affirmative action changed over the years? What is modern affirmative action policy?

Nicholas Centino: It differs from campus to campus. Some campuses will merely take race, gender, ability into account as one factor among many in the admissions process. Other schools go beyond that. They will have, for example, a diversity plan that will have flexible timetables and goals, not quotas, to reach parity by a certain period of time school to school.

However one contention that students have is, “What accountability do these schools have to their own processes and what accountability do these schools have to their own communities?”

At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, recently, there has been what’s called the Milwaukee Agreement that had targeted recruitment and admissions programs to recruit under-represented students from the city of Milwaukee. Because the school is a public school, it’s in Milwaukee, it has a responsibility to recruit and retain under-represented students from Milwaukee. It makes sense to me. But what happened was the high level administrators, primarily folks involved with the law end of administration, gutted their diversity plan and removed anything in that agreement that was meant to be effective, in terms of recruitment and admissions of Asian and Pacific Islanders in Milwaukee, and folks who graduated from schools in Milwaukee. Essentially what would keep that agreement accountable to its target areas was removed. Students have organized around that to de-gut the agreement and place those provisions back in there.

So a major area of contention is who are these programs accountable to and how do we as students make sure that these programs are a) effective, and b) being carried out to their fullest extent.

Students’ Power to Change

In Motion Magazine: Anything else you’d like to add?

Nicholas Centino: I’d like to stress the importance of students’ power to change, to change institutions, to change the policies, to change the programs, to push the university that much further into achieving equality in higher education. If people really want to know about affirmative action, they need to go to the real experts: the student who are in the trenches, who are getting their hands dirty, who are organizing. Often these students are the ones that are the most knowledgeable about the problems and the solutions.

If you look at it from that perspective, you will see that affirmative action programs and policies were created as a result of community and student pressure. What you have nowadays are universities defending their affirmative action policies as a means of bringing diversity to campuses, however the truth of the matter is those policies were created, and subsequently strengthened to be effective because of student organizers and community pressure. That’s a big part of the equation that always gets left out.

Just as during the civil rights movement students were organizing effectively and successfully to implement these programs and policies so are they as well doing today.

Published in In Motion Magazine December 2, 2002.

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