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Interview with Jennifer Lin
U.S. Students Association

Affirmative Action:
Learning from achievements in Florida

Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Lin is director of the Student of Color Campus Diversity Project, U.S. Student Association. This interview was conducted (by phone from San Diego) for In Motion Magazine by Nic Paget-Clarke, May 24, 2000.

Ward Connerly's Florida initiative stopped

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

Jennifer Lin: I just came back from a meeting with Mandy Carter who is the campaign manager of Floridians Representing Equity and Equality (FREE) and the update is Ward Connerly has decided not to pursue his initiative for the 2000 ballot. He has said he will continue to try and put it on the ballot for 2002. For at least the immediate elections in November his initiative language will not appear. This is a major victory, and I believe it is in a large part due to the mass mobilizations and the March on Tallahassee. Huge numbers of people came from Miami to Tallahassee and from all parts of Florida. They were mobilizing to say ‘We don’t want any sort of anti-affirmative action language on our next ballot. We are not for it.’ I believe it’s a major victory due to the hard work of the people in Florida.

In Motion Magazine: When were these mobilizations in Tallahassee?

Jennifer Lin: There was a large march called the Coalition of Conscience, on March 7, 2000. A large number of people came to the state capitol on the opening day of the state legislature, when the governor was going to give his state of the state address. Thousands of people came out. It was quoted as the largest mass mobilization in Tallahassee’s history. It sent a strong and clear message to folks who were looking to do more damage in Florida to affirmative action. It sent a strong message to those folks that people in Florida are going to stand up and protect affirmative action.

In Motion Magazine: Did Connerly give a reason for not going ahead?

Jennifer Lin: Connerly was waiting for the state supreme court to make a ruling on his ballot initiative language. He thought that the state supreme court would not give him enough time to collect the remaining signatures after they ruled on his language for his initiative to make it on the ballot. He wouldn’t have enough time to collect the remaining signatures. He didn’t feel it was worth it right now. I believe that translates into the fact that he saw the mass mobilizations in Tallahassee, he saw that the pro-affirmative action side was getting organized, and he realized that he wouldn’t be successful in Florida.

Lawsuit filed against Gov. Jeb Bush's "One Florida"

In Motion Magazine: How did Connerly’s proposed initiative relate to the governor’s activities?

Jennifer Lin: It overlapped the governor’s One Florida initiative. There’s an update on the One Florida initiative also. A law suit has been filed against it. The lawsuit was filed by the NAACP.

Unfortunately, though, the governor has gone ahead to try to implement the elimination of race and gender (considerations) in higher education and contracting and employment. It still remains to be seen how this law suit is going to pan out. The withdrawal of Connerly’s initiative, though, takes the momentum out of the anti-affirmative action move in Florida. With the possibility that the governor's One Florida Initiative will be stopped by the lawsuit, there is a greater likelihood that affirmative action will in some form be brought back.

In Motion Magazine: What’s the basis of the lawsuit?

Jennifer Lin: The basis of the lawsuit is that the Board of Regents did not have the right to rule on the end of affirmative action in higher education. It was out of their jurisdiction, so to speak. It wasn’t up to the Board of Regents to decide to take race and gender out of the admissions process. Also, it shouldn't be up to the Board of Regents to decide to implement a talented-20 program. Decisions like those should go through some sort of process either through the state legislature or other avenues where there is accountability to the people in Florida.

In Motion Magazine: Do you think that Jeb Bush has helped or hurt Connerly’s efforts by shifting it from the ballot to an arbitrary governor decision?

Jennifer Lin: I’m with those folks in Florida who say that although Jeb Bush says he never wanted Connerly’s initiative in his state they were probably in cahoots all along.

Bush’s One Florida initiative did everything that Connerly’s initiative would have done in terms of education. Bush’s One Florida initiative made it repetitious for Connerly to run his campaign in Florida. Jeb Bush did away with affirmative action and made it easier for Connerly. I’m also with the folks in Florida who say what the governor in Florida did is exactly what Connerly wants. He doesn’t want to have to spend millions of dollars to pay people to gather signatures for an initiative. Consciously or unconsciously they were working on the same track.

I think it’s different means but same ends. The mere fact that Connerly’s initiative won’t appear on the 2000 ballot is a good thing. But whether Jeb Bush’s One Florida initiative has the same impact as a Ward Connerly initiative remains to be seen. For me, it’s which mechanism, the executive order or the voting initiative, is going to be easier to turn back, is going to be easier to resolve, remedy. That is my whole thing. Which is going to be easier for the public to do away with so that affirmative action can be brought back.

Pro-active FREE initiative provides positive alternative

In Motion Magazine: What do you think is the difference between what has transpired in Florida and what happened in Washington state and California?

Jennifer Lin: I think the folks in Florida have been creative in putting together this pro-affirmative action ballot measure, in talking about equal opportunity in state education, contracting, and employment in Florida. FREE has been pro-active in looking at putting a positive initiative about affirmative action on the ballot. Now, they have decided to continue gathering signatures to get their measure on the ballot if not in 2000, then in 2002. There will be a positive alternative for people to choose right next to the very mean-spirited Connerly initiative.

I also believe that in Florida there is a strong connection between communities of color and white women’s organizations, or women’s organization in general. People have been able to connect the issues of race and gender even though race is often the main component in people’s minds.

In Motion Magazine: Do you see any developments in the theory of how people are looking at affirmative action?

Jennifer Lin: Definitely. I walked out of that last Board of Regents meeting with two realizations about this discussion on affirmative action. One was that affirmative action, in terms of admissions into college and university programs, was being pitted against efforts to equalize K-12 education. I believe that is something that has totally gotten off-track. Those of us who believe in affirmative action feel very strongly that affirmative action needs to go hand in hand with efforts to make sure that every student in the K-12 system has a quality education, has opportunities to take classes, is encouraged to go to college.

Secondly, I realized that folks at the Board of Regents meeting who were for the One Florida initiative, for the elimination of affirmative action, were also talking about diversity. They were talking about equal opportunity. They had taken the manipulation of language to a new level. The people who are dismantling affirmative action are using the touch words of diversity. The touch words of equal opportunity. But they were using them in a way that was detrimental to the very concepts of diversity and of equal opportunity. It’s something that scared me a little bit, quite honestly. It made me realize that there needs to be continuing work on what exactly affirmative action does and why it is now that our opponents are using diversity as a tool to dismantle diversity, as a tool to dismantle affirmative action.

Developing ideas about student organizing

In Motion Magazine: Has this ongoing struggle over affirmative action changed the opinions of you and USSA about education?

Jennifer Lin: When we talk about access to education, students at colleges and universities across the country have given USSA a mandate that affirmative action has to be on our list of things to fight for. But given the reality of all the challenges to affirmative action I think students as well as staff here have stepped back and said ‘What is all of this? Where are the attacks coming from? How do we need to change our organizing to be more effective’.

For instance, folks in California are looking at electoral strategy. In the past, students of color and progressive students may not have always seen voting as their main strategy to effect change, progressive social change. But looking at the realities of how the vote has been essential to the elimination of affirmative action in California and Washington, they are now looking at how students of color, progressive students, can take back the vote. We are looking at changing the way we organize as a whole.

Part of what USSA has had to do is look at how can students talk about the issue of affirmative action in a way that does not alienate people but rather says ‘We believe in this program. This is why. This is how it benefits not only students of color and women but everyone.

How do we need to change our organizing and our power analysis to be more effective?

In Motion Magazine: Is Florida the only hot spot? Or are there others things going on?

Jennifer Lin: Luckily because Connerly has been stopped at this point in Florida the momentum has slowed. After Connerly won in Washington, he said, 'I'm going to take my anti-affirmative action initiative to states like Arizona, Nebraska, Michigan, and Florida. Now that his initiative has been stopped in Florida he hasn’t been so quick to say ‘Well, I’m going to go to these next five states. I’m going to pour money into these campaigns.’ I believe that there has been a slowing down due to the good work of pro-affirmative action folks in Florida.

I don’t know where new possible campaigns are. Michigan continues to be a key state as far as law suits. We are watching to see if there is a possibility of other legislative or initiative activity in Michigan or Southern states like Georgia, and North Carolina where there was a system-wide review of affirmative action a couple of years ago.

In Motion Magazine: Where do you think things are going?

Jennifer Lin: In Florida, folks are looking both long term and short term, at the elections in November 2000 and November 2002. They want to keep the idea of affirmative action in people’s minds as they go the polls -- both during the gubernatorial election which is coming up in 2002 and also in local elections, the state legislature and otherwise.

Also, given the wide range of where Ward Connerly has been, folks who are pro-affirmative action need to be national, just as he is, in terms of our networks of people and the way we organize.

Expand affirmative action to include both race and class considerations

In Motion Magazine: Do you have anything else you’d like to say?

Jennifer Lin: I do have one other thing. One of my co-workers here said recently that this whole discussion wouldn’t be needed if every person had a job or a job that they enjoyed, if there were enough slots in colleges and universities for everyone to go to school. He said that if everyone had the job that they liked or had an equal opportunity to get an education this whole issue of affirmative action, especially the white backlash to affirmative action, would be eliminated. And I agree to a certain extent. I agree that if there were more opportunities then the issue of competition would dissipate. There would not be so much pitting of people against each other. But I would also say we need to infuse race into that theory. For example, when there is a high level of people of color in certain positions there are white folks who say ‘I want that job. Those people of color don’t deserve it.’ That theory of ‘If everyone had a piece of the pie then we would be ok’ is fine but we need to look at how race infuses that perspective as well. It’s not as easy as saying ‘If everyone had a piece of the pie we’d all get along. If every person had a job and had an education we’d all get along.’ I think that’s an oversimplified scenario of how our society works.

In discussions of affirmative action it’s not often that we connect affirmative action with capitalism -- and the idea of unequal competition for scarce resources. It's a connection that needs to be made.. I think we need to make sure the concepts of race, racial discrimination and racism are connected into that. And I think our organizations should look at how to expand affirmative action to better include class. I'm not saying we should replace race with class in affirmative action programs, but instead expand affirmative action to include both race and class considerations.

In college admissions, class is considered, since economic status is considered, but it isn’t very clear how affirmative action works in a class-based way. I think if we are to make the connections between race and class, particularly coalitions between people of color and folks who are low-income white allies of affirmative action, then we need to look at how affirmative action can be expanded to include the concept of class and access based on class as well as race and gender.

Lastly, because USSA’s main membership is college and university students, that is the bulk of people who we work with. But there’s also a lot of good organizing been done among high school students on the issue of affirmative action. They are the ones that are directly impacted by these issues. College and university students have already gotten in the door, so to speak, and they are working hard to keep the doors open, but there has to be more support and resources to help high school students organize themselves to take a stand and organize on this issue. Not only because of the impact on admission into college but also because the attacks on affirmative action have been moving earlier in the education process to magnet high schools and things like that. There needs to be more organizing to help those students and support the good work that they are already doing.

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Published in In Motion Magazine June 24, 2000.