A stand for diversity at UW

Charles Peterson reports from Madison on an angry protest by University of Wisconsin students who are defending affirmative action against a right-wing attack.

Students standing up for affirmative action make their way into a press conferenceStudents standing up for affirmative action make their way into a press conference

HUNDREDS OF students and activists from the University of Wisconsin (UW) took over a press conference by the misnamed Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) in Madison, Wis., on September 13 to defend affirmative action.

At a press conference at the Doubletree hotel, the CEO released a racist, anti-affirmative action study as part of a push to dismantle diversity programs at UW. The study claims that UW's admissions policies discriminate against white students. The CEO also plans to file a lawsuit against the university.

The multiracial crowd of UW students and supporters--including many of the same students of color that the CEO has the gall to claim were unfairly admitted--protested outside when they were initially refused entrance to the press conference. But despite hotel personnel's attempts to keep them out, protesters eventually forced their way into the lobby, chanting "We are more than our scores!" and "People power! People power!"

Protester Danez Smith expressed the feelings of many in the 200-strong crowd: "Every year I have been here, my legitimacy is questioned...We need more than affirmative action. We need just treatment of people of color."

What you can do

The International Socialist Organization and other campus groups are organizing a forum on September 20 at 6:30 p.m. in Humanities 1101 to discuss the next steps for fighting racism and defending diversity on campus.

When asked about the CEO, Danez continued, "I think they're racist. Their view on affirmative action is skewed, and they are about promoting views that have long been considered bigoted." As he also pointed out, "It's not like there's a shortage of white people at UW." Far from it, in fact: the student body is almost 90 percent white.

After entering the lobby and sitting in, protesters confronted CEO spokesperson Roger Clegg, who was forced to pack up his briefcase and was quickly escorted to his room by security, while protesters continued to chant, "We are more than our scores!" and "Don't come back!"

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at UW-Madison and chair of the university's Committee on Undergrad Recruitment, Admissions and Financial Aid, said that the CEO's obsession about affirmative action ignored that college admissions involved "preferences of all sorts: legacy, athletes, violin players from Wyoming, and also race."

Moreover, according to Goldrick-Rab, "The applicant pool was 18,000 whites out of a total of 19,000--a figure that has been going up. Total Black and Hispanic applicants never exceeded 1,500." She also cited "evidence from other states--when affirmative action was banned, there were no Black or brown people."

This speaks to the real agenda of the CEO: to deny quality higher education to people of color. This was starkly on display in a debate between Clegg and UW law professor Larry Church, which took place later the same evening after the protest.

Incredibly, Clegg compared UW's use of racial preferences to the University of Mississippi refusing to admit African American students at the height of Jim Crow segregation in the South. In fact, today's admissions preferences are an attempt to address racial and economic disparities that put minority students at a distinct disadvantage compared to their white counterparts.

Prior to the debate, over 500 students gathered at Bascomb Hall to defend UW's diverse admissions policy--one of the larger mobilizations on the UW campus in many years. It also points to the potential for ongoing antiracist struggles.