Soundings

Roger Kimball
Affirmative Looting
More money is all that’s needed to fix the schools? Not when it's spent, as all too often, on junk like this.
Spring 2001

In the spring on college campuses these days, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of . . . protest. And so, in early March, from the University of California at Berkeley—the mother church of student protest—came this headline: MELEE ERUPTS AT AFFIRMATIVE ACTION RALLY. At least one student was seriously injured.

The University dropped its affirmative action policy back in 1995, and California voters upheld the ban in a referendum later that year. Ever since, leftish malcontents have taken every opportunity to condemn the iniquity of holding all applicants for admission to the same standards. What they want instead is something G. K. Chesterton skewered as "the false idea of progress": the notion that, rather than trying to pass the test, you change the test.

At Berkeley, some 2,000 high-school students were bussed in for the fun, many with their teachers' blessing. It was supposed to be part of their civics education—though I doubt that Bay Area high schools will be bussing their students to the next right-to-life or anti-bilingual-ed rally. The only real civics lesson is a liberal civics lesson.

The high schoolers joined the usual assortment of faculty and students at the protest. According to one protester—a member of the student government's Defend Affirmative Action Party—"The rally will be a declaration of the new civil rights movement. We intend to fight for equality and integration throughout society, including for women of all races."

As it turned out "race" was the mot juste, for, after listening to a few speeches, a group of about 100 high-school students sprinted into an Athlete's Foot shoe store and started looting running shoes. As the journalist Andrew Sullivan observed, "It seems the students want affirmative action, women's rights, aid for East Timor, and a pair of those really cool new sneakers." Sullivan recalled a popular parody of the 1992 Los Angeles riots: L.A. RIOTERS DEMAND JUSTICE, TAPE DECKS, ran the headline.

Yesterday's parody becomes today's reality. The students-for-sneakers skirmish began on Berkeley's Sproul Plaza—the exact spot that saw the birth of the Free Speech Movement and its riots back in 1964, at the start of a generation of irresponsible student activism. Marx once cannily observed that history repeats itself twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. He didn't foresee, though, that the farce would become a permanent fixture in our cultural life.

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