Baked Cookies and Racism at UT

Young Conservatives get national headlines, local contempt

Young Conservatives of Texas gather a crowd on- and off-line with a bake sale stunt to protest affirmative action at UT Austin (Photo by John Anderson)

It was the bake sale heard around the world. That's probably what the Young Conservatives of Texas hoped for Wednesday when they played pastry provocateurs to the University of Texas campus.

If you’ve never been to UT’s West Mall (and most of the people watching yesterday’s hastily streaming live feeds in all likelihood never have), it’s the quintessential image of an American college campus: societies with sign-up desks under autumn trees, waiting for passing undergrads to grab a flier. On this day, assembled tables were pulled back a little, as students and staff lined up at the Flawn Academic Center to vote. The sign-up sheets were shifted so as not to break state laws concerning political activity near polling stations. Closer to the empty fountain, a volunteer for the Hispanic Student Association was plaintively offering corn in a cup for $2 as a fundraiser.

At the corner nearest the UT Main building, the school’s Young Conservative Network assembled to offer something more appealing: home-baked cookies. This was no ordinary distribution of flour and sugar, however. If passersby had been serious about the treats, there was a religious group handing out free home-baked cookies about 30 feet away. Instead, after an hour of YCT’s little sale, the group’s table had been folded up, their cookies disappeared, and a throng of protesters had packed itself in along the northeast end of the mall.

This wasn’t a bake sale. This was a political showdown.

The YCT had decided to stage an act of outright provocation, selling cookies with a sliding price scale: $1.50 for Asian males, $0.25 for Hispanic women, free of charge to Native Americans.

The target of their ire was the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of UT’s continued consideration of race in admissions as a path to creating a diverse student body (cf. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin).

But the group’s jab in the eye to UT’s policy was met with quick opposition in the form of roughly 400 protesters. Drawn by ire and curiosity, they loudly challenged YCT’s members who had taken to the short wall around the mall’s bordering flower beds. Those nearest the front challenged the conservatives on principle and policy, but to their frustration, odd drifts of the yelled debate rarely made it more than a few feet over the insistent buzz of other conversations.

If you’d actually wanted to know what was going on, it was a better idea to follow The Daily Texan’s live feed on Facebook, or any of the other streams from the small forest of cell phones at the front of the protesting crowd. Without that social media presence, it was hard to see that some of the most furious debate was between two African-American males taking stances with historical precedent: one following the line of revered NAACP president Walter Francis White that intervention is necessary to balance an inherently unfair system; the other pushing historian Carter G. Woodson’s line that handouts cripple self-reliance.

However, the more abiding image of four white students, grinning, holding up that confrontational price list like it was prime political satire that would make Jonathan Swift chortle. YCT posted the menu on its official Instagram account (before promptly deleting it), which in turn got screengrabbed and disseminated around the internet.

If YCT’s aim, as its organizers claimed, was to get a debate started about affirmative action, then it was a quasi-success. Little pockets of discussion broke out. Two guys, furrow-browed, exchanged blunt questions about the scale of European and white American deaths in World Wars I and II as an indicator of hardship. Another told his friend that, yes, he wondered sometimes about whether being Hispanic had affected his admission chances; but then knew how hard he worked to get to UT, and how hard he worked to stay there. One African-American student testily responded to an open question of who made it to the school because of affirmative action by saying: “I struggled to get here.”

To most in attendance, the claim that this was about starting a dialogue seemed as plausible as Donald Trump suddenly proclaiming he wanted to teach J 395 (Ethics of Journalism) to budding undergraduate reporters. What YCT did was garner attention. At least, more so than when they pulled the same stunt in 2013, before SCOTUS sent Abigail Fisher and her challenge to affirmative action packing (and before the worst dregs of the far right fulminated conspiracy theories that liberals had assassinated Associate Justice Antonin Scalia because he would have swooped to her rescue). Many statewide and national media entities turned up and turned the crowd into news fodder. That Daily Texan feed broke 130,000 views. Even UT President Greg Fenves chimed in, tweeting that the sale “does not reflect UT values. Diversity & inclusion will always be top priorities.”

With seemingly no sense of irony, YCT-UT Chair Vidal Castañeda later issued a statement that his group’s members were merely exercising their rights under the First Amendment, and that they “will not be deterred by liberal elites that would love nothing more than to silence conservative, common sense voices on campus.” Considering the worst they got was the odd chant of “Hey hey, ho ho, this racist group has got to go,” and most of the live feeds were coming from opponents who sought to challenge them in discussion, it’s hard to see how he thought his rights were trampled.

Inevitably, as 2pm curled around, the crowd began to dissipate in time for the next class. Down the path, the Hispanic Student Association volunteer suddenly brightened up as the dispersing crowd grew nearer. “Cup of corn?” he asked.

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