Highlights: Berkeley Law panel on affirmative action

I had the great pleasure of speaking in a panel discussion this past Saturday at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. The students made it a wonderfully interactive process. And my distinguished co-panelists, who all disagreed with me on affirmative action, always gave me ample time to respond to their comments. Here are a few highlights:

The debate moderator kicked off the debate with a simple question: what is affirmative action? I defined it as the use of racial classifications in conjunction with racial preferences. In other words, affirmative action pigeonholes individuals into government-created racial groups, and treats them differently depending on whether they are members of the preferred race.

Disparate treatment on the basis of race is wrong no matter who it helps or harms. But a recent lawsuit against Harvard University highlights how race-based admissions policies stigmatize Asians. In light of these policies, Asian students are being told by admissions counselors to lower their expectations, de-emphasize their culture, and avoid traditional Asian career paths such as science or medicine.

One panelists tried to explain this away by noting that the Harvard lawsuit is funded by a wealthy individual, who sought out sympathetic plaintiffs for the case. But, surely, that doesn’t detract from the merits of the suit. I explained that many public interest organizations — like Pacific Legal Foundation (and civil rights organizations of the 50s and 60s) — represent likable plaintiffs in order to advance worthwhile causes in the court of law and the court of public opinion.

Having said all that, I am grateful to the students and to co-panelists Bill Lann Lee, Kevin Lo, and Professor Brian Landsberg for their input. I hope to continue our vigorous debate on this critical issue.