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Stanford faculty, students discuss race in America

Students, faculty and staff who filled the 150 seats, spilled into the aisles and stood several deep at the back of the lecture hall in Lane History Corner on Nov. 6 had come to join in what was billed as a give-and-take campus discussion about race in America.

The four faculty panelists also were primed. Speaking as philosophers, political scientists, psychologists and educators, they addressed issues of affirmative action, voting rights, academic expectation and bilingual education.

But when the discussion was opened for questions by moderator Al Camarillo, professor of history and director of the sponsoring Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE), the dialogue almost didn't happen.

One student stood to register an "opposite viewpoint" about Proposition 209, the state constitutional amendment banning racial and gender preferences in public education, hiring and contracting that was upheld by the Supreme Court last week.

"209 represented, to me, a return to the America that I know and love," he said with obvious emotion, after mentioning his family's experience as migrant farm workers in the Central Valley

And then he left the room.

"Historically, when we've talked about race, one response has been to withdraw and simply not engage," Camarillo said a few minutes later about the challenge facing the campus audience. "And another response that's common in our society is that we talk past one another.

Panelist Debra Satz, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Ethics in Society Program, was visibly disappointed that she couldn't engage the student who had spoken.

"What I wanted to say is that there's lots of room for debate and disagreement," Satz said. "Affirmative action can sometimes promote division, but it can also be seen as a way of sending a message to groups that have been excluded, saying we're making serious attempts now to include you."

"But racism is on the minds of Americans," he added. "And we have to come up with different ways of communicating."

The campus discussion hosted by CCSRE couldn't have been more timely. Earlier that week, the day after the Supreme Court upheld Proposition 209, voters in Houston had cast their ballots to retain that city's affirmative action policies. Against that conflicting political background, President Clinton's nomination of Bill Lann Lee to be the first Asian American to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division appeared headed for defeat in the Senate because of opposition to Lee's support of affirmative action policies.

The faculty panelists spoke from professional perspectives and also drew on personal experience in pledging their commitment to engage in the national dialogue on race that President Clinton called for in his commencement address at the University of California-San Diego last June.

Claude Steele, professor of psychology, appeared to voice the feelings of many in the audience when he asked, "Why is it that it is so difficult for us to see this system of racial disadvantage?"

He recalled his own experience, watching media coverage of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s and 1960s.

"Every night on television there were vivid scenes of racial injustice, of police dogs harassing demonstrators, of fire hoses, governors standing in schoolhouse doors, obstructing blacks from doing ordinary things," Steele said.

Today, however, a generation has been raised without those images, Steele noted, suggesting that the media now tend to portray a society that is "very integrated, where we all get along very well."

But Steele said that image does not jibe with "the fact that our lives are almost increasingly segregated." He added that "it is possible for large segments of the American population to live without any contact with minority concerns."

Steele described his research on the threat of racial stereotypes and how that threat can interfere with the academic performance of minority students.

"But the real big point is that whether performance is up or down is driven by the threat in the situation, and not something essential about the group, not something that is characteristic of the group," he added.

Steps could be taken in the research laboratory, and in real-life academic situations, to remove those "threats," Steele said, and that gives him hope.

But he expressed concern about the "bruised feelings and alienation" that continue to prevent Americans from acknowledging that a system of racial disadvantage exists.

"There still is a system afoot in American society which constitutes a racial disadvantage of a very serious degree," he added. "We cannot assume because of television ads and newspaper ads that we're on easy street now. We're not."

Satz framed the panel discussion by suggesting that philosophical reflection might help to explore the relationship between race and gender preferences, and the ideas of equality and fairness. She also looked at the relationship between racial and ethnic consciousness, and the ideal of common humanity.

Those who object to affirmative action because they say that fairness demands color blindness, and because they consider affirmative action policies unfair, are promoting an argument that "trades on ambiguity," Satz said.

The argument that analogizes affirmative action to Jim Crow laws is historically inaccurate, Satz said. "The problem with Jim Crow, and the denial of suffrage and civil rights to blacks, was not simply that people were treated differently on the basis of a morally arbitrary difference, simply because they were black.

"Jim Crow was wrong because it treated people as no human being should be treated."

Satz argued that the social meaning and purpose of Jim Crow laws was distinct from the social purpose and meaning of affirmative action policies that seek to "promote racial and gender integration of the major social roles and positions in our society."

Satz also distinguished between the right to equal treatment and the right to treatment as an equal. Although the 14th Amendment to the Constitution does not guarantee equal treatment in terms of the distribution of benefits and burdens, She argued that the Constitution does guarantee that everyone be treated "with the same respect and concern."

Satz, who teaches courses about "Antiracism, Multiculturalism and Common Humanity" and "Philosophical Issues Concerning Race and Racism" in the philosophy department, said she is convinced that tensions between race and ethnic consciousness on the one hand, and common humanity on the other, could be moderated by learning to respect and appreciate "the world's distinct racial, ethnic and cultural groups."

"What we do with our differences is a choice that we can make," Satz suggested, and she illustrated the point with a story about the discovery of anesthesia in the 19th century, when physicians distinguished peoples' need for pain relief on the basis of their race, gender, ethnicity and class.

"The rich were thought to need [painkillers] more than the poor and uneducated," Satz said. "The experts in 19th-century anesthesia did not stop to ask whether they properly understood the pain of others. Can we do better?"

Luis Fraga, an associate professor of political science whose research focuses on voting rights and politics of race and ethnicity, spoke about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated literacy tests and other restrictions on voter registration and resulted in an increase of one million voters in the first two years after its passage.

Fraga contrasted those gains with recent decisions by the Supreme Court that, he argued, have emphasized a new constitutional right, guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, to "participate in a colorblind electoral process."

"What the court is saying [in the 1993 Shaw v. Reno decision] is that race for the purposes of governance is suspect," Fraga noted. "This is exactly, in my view, what the court did in justifying many of the decisions that it made in the late 19th century upholding the system of Jim Crow laws.

"The challenge to us becomes, then, whether we accept that interpretation," Fraga said.

Kenji Hakuta, professor of education and a specialist in second language acquisition, used an overhead projector to compare historic views of bilingual education with policy changes proposed by advocates of the California ballot initiative "English for the Children."

At a time when between 3.3 and 3.6 million children in elementary and secondary schools are classified as not being sufficiently proficient in English to be in regular English-language classrooms, Hakuta said, the initiative is proposing that all children be enrolled in "English only" or "English immersion" classes. Under provisions of the initiative, $50 million would be provided over 10 years for English programs for adults to tutor children.

Hakuta said a recent poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that 80 percent of those responding support the ballot initiative. But Hakuta said he is wary of how polls sometimes are framed.

"If someone is asked, 'Should your children be taught English?' a lot of people will tend to support that," he said.

As the signature-gathering process continues, Hakuta said, the "issue of the moment" actually addresses more entrenched positions and beliefs..

"It has to do with the label and stigma that goes along with being a non-speaker or a limited-English-proficient member of society," he said.

The campus discussion set the stage for a year-long series of events sponsored by CCSRE, including a Northern California regional Summit on Race in America scheduled for Jan. 30, 1998. Tapes of all discussions and talks will be available for instructional purposes for high schools and colleges.


By Diane Manuel

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