Silence at Boalt Hall: The Dismantling of Affirmative Action

Article excerpt

Silence at Boalt Hall: The Dismantling of Affirmative Action

Andrea Guerrero. Berkeley:

University of California Press, 2002


Silence at Boalt Hall: The Dismantling of Affirmative Action is primarily about how Boalt Hall, the prestigious law school at the University of California, Berkeley, and its students of color, sought to save affirmative action in the mid-1990s. Part history of affirmative action at Boalt Hall, part analysis of important affirmative action cases and key policy initiatives in California, and part defense of affirmative action, this book is worth reading even though Andrea Guerrero's arguments for affirmative action are not overly original. Others have argued against race-blind policies, provided compelling evidence of the benefits of diversity, and questioned the value of traditional indicators of merit such as test scores and grade point averages.

What is compelling and fresh about this book is the story about Boalt Hall. We learn how students of color (and some of their white allies) sought to save affirmative action, despite the resistance of many of Boalt Hall's faculty and administrators; about the decision by the California board of regents to eliminate affirmative action at the University of California; and about the passage in 1996 of Proposition 209, which barred the use of affirmative action programs in the public sector. Guerrero tells a credible and often poignant story, based primarily on interviews with administrators, faculty, and students. She is partial to the students' stories, but points out significant contradictions between what Boalt Hall faculty and administrators espoused and what they did. For example, they lamented the mandates laid down by the regents and Proposition 209, but also implemented them conservatively, failing to pursue creative ways to recruit promising applicants of color, even though such efforts were not prohibited. This story is made more credible by the fact that Guerrero was an active participant in the events at Boalt Hall, and more poignant by the fact that she was among the last beneficiaries of affirmative action at the law school.

The book's final chapter is somewhat disappointing, because it repeats what others have stated about the current political landscape of affirmative action, the importance of racial and ethnic diversity, and the need to de-emphasize the use of standardized tests. Guerrero is right in arguing that affirmative action is necessary because using traditional indicators of merit negatively affects underrepresented minorities. However, we should also question the ideas and practices that make affirmative action necessary in the first place. Thus, I question the rhetoric of limited admissions and the legitimacy of selectivity, especially at public institutions. I question the common acceptance of "merit" as something individuals possess (even when one seeks to expand its meaning beyond traditional indicators of quality) rather than as a concept used solely for the purposes of distributing social resources and legitimating the prevailing institutional arrangements of such distribution. …