UC Berkeley’s chapter of the College Republicans plan to host a bake sale on campus this morning as a commentary on affirmative action policies under consideration in the state legislature. (The idea is to critique affirmative action by offering food for sale to some groups for less than others.)

The “affirmative action bake sale” is a bit of a relic in conservative organizing — it had its heyday in the early 2000s. But it always provokes, and Berkeley  is no exception. Some of the institutional reactions, however, have been fascinating.

Sunday, a group calling itself the Multicultural Coalition for Affirmative Action released a list of demands in response to the planned sale, calling on the Berkeley administration to — among other things — add clear anti-discrimination statements to the university’s Principles of Community, and to add those principles to the Berkeley code of student conduct.

On Sunday night ASUC — Berkeley’s student government — unanimously passed a resolution that, after a page of careful laying out of the various jurisdictional issues and imperatives involved, “condemn[ed] the use of discrimination whether it is in satire or seriousness by any student group.”

And yesterday Berkeley’s chancellor sent out an open letter on the sale. The event, he said, was “hurtful or offensive to many” at Berkeley, though he didn’t say why. It was not the politics of the sale, he implied, that were problematic, but the form of their expression: “Regardless what policies or practices one advocates, careful consideration is needed on how to express those opinions.”

Absent from each of these formal statements was any explicit statement of what exactly was wrong with the Republicans’ sale. (ASUC indicated that actually selling treats to certain students at reduced prices might violate anti-discrimination regulations, but of course actually selling stuff was never the point of the event.)

I wrote yesterday about the hundreds of non-violent protesters who have been arrested at UC campuses in the last three years, and I’ll be writing more about those events as this week rolls on. Seen in that light, the failure of ASUC and Chancellor Birgenau to do more than merely place themselves on the side of sensitivity and civility rings hollow.

As an act of political theater, the affirmative action bake sale is a pretty paltry one. It offers a weak and overplayed analogy to the admissions debate, rehashing claims that have been batted around for ages. What makes it provocative isn’t its form but its message: that affirmative action is an immoral act of discrimination.

That’s what the College Republicans of Berkeley believe, and that is the message they are attempting to convey with their sale. They believe that affirmative action is racist and sexist against against whites and men, and there’s no polite way to call someone a bigot.

Birgenau wants to make the debate about the bake sale a debate about how polite the Berkeley community should be. But that’s not what it’s about, on either side. It’s about who should be allowed to enroll in the university, and on what terms.

That’s what’s under discussion. That’s what’s at stake.

Update | Zunguzungu has provided a report from the scene in comments, and there’s a lot more info to be had at the Twitter hashtag #theaffirmation. All in all, it sounds like student supporters of affirmative action responded cogently and soberly to the bake sale. And it’s worth noting that a list of demands released today by “The Coalition,” an anti-bakesale group, pretty much ignores the bake sale, and the College Republicans, altogether.

The coalition demand the passage and implementation of California’s Senate Bill 185, which would allow race and ethnicity to be taken into consideration in UC admissions, and Assembly Bill 540, which addresses admissions and tuition issues for undocumented students. They demand new funding and staffing for support services for students of color at Berkeley. They demand a restructuring of the school’s American culture course requirement to center scholarship on race, ethnicity, and gender, and the inclusion of the university’s “Principles of Community” on course syllabi. They demand representation of underrepresented campus communities in admissions hiring.

Each of these demands is addressed to the functioning of the University of California as an institution. None of them have the College Republicans or those who share their views as their target. Crucially absent from the list are demands that appeared in a draft version that appeared on Friday, calling on the university to bolster its code of conduct with new restrictions on bigoted student behavior.

As I said above, Berkeley’s chancellor Birgenau is seeking to frame this conflict as a dispute between students over standards of civility. Berkeley’s campus activists have rejected that framing, and are properly centering the government and the university itself in their response.