Fanning the Flames
University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia was once again at the center of controversy during a panel discussion last week, when he stood by his 1997 comments that blacks and Mexican-Americans are not competitive with other students because their cultures do not condemn failure.
About 250 people crowded into the LBJ Auditorium on the UT campus to hear the discussion, entitled "Affirmative Action in Higher Education: A Gray Issue." Panelists included Graglia, former Texas attorney general Dan Morales, Texas American Civil Liberties Union director Jay Jacobson, and Gary Bledsoe, Texas president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Graglia began the debate by reiterating his earlier claims that black and Mexican-American cultures are not as dedicated to education as are white and Asian-American. "Obviously blacks and Mexican-Americans are not academically competitive with whites and Asians. That's why there are preferences," Graglia said. "If they were competitive, there wouldn't need to be preferences to try to increase their numbers."
While he didn't concur with Graglia's statement, Morales maintained that equal representation of minorities in government and public institutions should be "achieved through processes that are fair, just, and widely accepted. Simply judging you as a category [like race] does not help the notion of fair play."
But Jacobson and Bledsoe argued that affirmative action policies are necessary to counter institutional racism and to make reparations for years of discrimination against minorities. "Racism is pervasive in this society. To think that it isn't is to live in a myth," Jacobson said. "When we talk about the issue of whether or not the playing field has been leveled ... you cannot say with a straight face that it has. We need to have the benefits of other groups brought to our communities," Bledsoe added.
The debate was a far cry from the political firestorm Graglia created two years ago when he first commented on the state of minorities in higher education. While he incited angry rebuttals from several audience members, most of whom were affiliated with UT's Anti-Racist Organizing Committee, there was little clash between the panelists. Graglia's voice seemed to be the one heard loudest and longest, including one moment -- either tense or comical, depending on whom you ask -- when Graglia commented that "very dark" South Asian students could provide the diversity missing from the UT law school.
"It was not a debate on affirmative action. I think this was just a place for Lino Graglia to strut," said Marian Thambynayagam, a senior at UT. "Unfortunately, I think Graglia was allowed to speak a lot more and a lot louder than anyone else, so his opinion was heard a lot more."
Jamie Munkatchy, a representative of the anti-racist group, said that several student groups at UT are planning to organize this week to discuss Graglia's statements and decide what action to take. "Quite a few different groups want to respond to the comments made last week, especially students of color on this campus. We particularly want to combat the rhetoric that these sort of ideas are popular and accepted and that that's the way we should go." Munkatchy said while she thinks many audience members at the discussion found the "Graglia spectacle" laughable, she still hoped for a more thoughtful debate on what affirmative action means.
But the ACLU's Jacobson said after the debate that he didn't expect any kind of resolution to come from the discussion. "In some ways it's like debating abortion -- you can't have a meeting of the minds. [Graglia] got up and did what people expected him to do. When you get four prima donnas up on the stage, this is what you have to expect. We perform."