By Brendan Fischer on September 13, 2011

MADISON -- The president of the group alleging the University of Wisconsin discriminates against whites debated a law professor Tuesday night on the merits of race-based university admissions policies. Hundreds of students rallied and attended the debate.

Wisconsin students rally at debate on affirmative actionThe Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) released a report Tuesday stating that the University of Wisconsin-Madison admission policies, which take race and other factors into account, amount to "severe racial discrimination" against white students. Of the university's 42,180 students, 2.6 percent are African-American and 3.8 percent are Hispanic. CEO's president Roger Clegg held a press conference announcing the finding earlier in the day, and as CMD reported, was met with resistance from faculty and student supporters of the university's policies.

Tuesday night, Clegg debated Wisconsin Law School professor and constitutional law scholar Larry Church on the legal and social issues surrounding affirmative action. Before the debate, a few hundred students rallied on the university's Bascom Hill, then marched to the event where they joined a lively crowd of around 850 attendees. The crowd chanted and waved their hand-made signs until the two took the stage.

Costs, Benefits

Clegg, speaking in measured tones, argued the "purported benefits" of race-based policies don't outweigh the costs. Affording to Clegg, the most effective justification for affirmative action is that diversity contributes to a positive learning environment, which he said has been "relied upon because the Supreme Court has bought it." The trouble with the argument, Clegg said, is that it assumes "we can tell something about a person's background and experiences based on their skin color or country of ancestry." For Clegg, the costs include that affirmative action policies are "divisive," "stigmatizing," "remove the incentive for academic excellence," and "promote a victim mindset."

Professor Church, tall, wizened and soft-spoken, said affirmative action is an effort to make the Declaration of Independence's "all men are created equal" phrase "realistic." As for the Fourteenth Amendment's mandate that no public body can deny any person equal protection under the law, he asked whether it is satisfied by a "technically equal" application that had a "racially skewed result." "Equal protection means not just the right to take a [law school admissions exam], but to participate in the fruits and benefits of society," he said. Church also cited changing demographics in the U.S., noting that the latest census shows only 50% of the under-18 population is white, and that considering race in university admissions is necessary because "we can't afford in any circumstances to have a permanent underclass."

Ongoing Discrimination

Neither disputed the continued existence of discrimination against racial minorities. In response to Clegg's assertion that affirmative action is "stigmatizing" for racial minorities, Church stated "what else is new?", eliciting cheers from the crowd. "If [a person of color] is going to stigmatized anyway, [they] may as well take affirmative action in the process," he said. For Clegg, ongoing societal discrimination is less an issue that university policies that say "if you are African-American or Latino, we expect less of you." Clegg repeated throughout the evening that "I'm the one up here who opposes discrimination."

During the question and answer session, Clegg was asked, "have you ever taken the time to speak with the students who face discrimination on a daily basis? To find out what it feels like to be one of two minorities in a class of 500?"

Clegg brushed-off the question.

Read CMD's earlier coverage of this issue here. Read the CEO report here. The University of Wisconsin-Madison's response can be found here.

Brendan Fischer

Brendan Fischer is CMD's General Counsel. He graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Comments

There are many complexities associated with affirmative action programs and policies. However, one issue which we continually ignore, as is the case with most government related programs and initiatives, is whether it is effective in addressing past wrongs. Think about this: How many beneficiaries of affirmative action programs have actually shared their good fortune with other members of their particular ethnic group, as opposed to using their increased opportunities and wealth to distance themselves from the masses of minority citizens?

Reggie, It is unfair for you to assume that those who benefit through Affirmative Action will not give back. Where is your documentation for that assertion that proves your case? Personally, as a white man, with decidedly the "white privilege" ordained to me, I know folks, friends, people of color, who, had they not been given the chance through Affirmative Action to become educated and to pursue goals to push through for fair social justice issues and to actually work on behalf of the ethnic group they are in, could not help others as they do. So, just my small anecdote contradicts your assertion, but to assume that there are none of whom you speak is also not correct, I'm sure there are, but they are the exception, not the rule. White privilege has never known discrimination as people of color have and cannot understand just how unequal things are even today. Look at the stats about who is being the most affected with the recession and the high numbers of unemployment and incarceration that are affecting people of color. Of course, there are different levels of discrimination and oppression. Having been brought up in an all white Methodist orphanage and attending public school, all at the public school knew those students who were from the "home." We never seemed to measure up, and I'm certain being black with hundreds of years of being considered equal to a piece of furniture as property, has generational effects, and with white folks with their "white privilege" having no idea what life is like as property. I know no black person today is or was property, but the affects of not being considered "good" enough, or of being thought of as typical stereotypes plays a role in how these folks see themselves. With the total of 2698 people of color students out of 42,000 at the university it seems silly to be concerned about affirmative action. It isn't like the university is being inundated with students in the group called people of color, and I do not quite understand what the objection to it is and just how it hurts white students who outnumber everyone else.