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Tomorrow the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Fisher v. Texas, addressing the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions. I wrote a piece on the history of the case and how the Court might rule back in July, and I’d encourage you to go take a look at it if you’re not familiar with the background. But this morning I want to talk about something a little less technical.

Here’s how the case’s plaintiff, rejected University of Texas applicant Abigail Fisher, described what’s at stake in today’s New York Times:

“I’m hoping that they’ll completely take race out of the issue in terms of admissions and that everyone will be able to get into any school that they want no matter what race they are but solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it.”

For better or worse, that’s not remotely on the table.

Colleges accept and reject candidates for all sorts of reasons that have little or nothing to do with merit. They take legacies — relatives of other graduates — because those admissions are good for alumni donations. They accept football players because bowl games and shirt sales are good for the bottom line. Many private colleges consider a student’s wealth in admissions decisions, and many publics are pumping up out-of-state admissions to enhance tuition revenue. None of this has anything to do with merit.

And all of it is completely legal.

That’s worth underscoring. It’s not illegal to discriminate on the basis of non-academic factors in college admissions in the United States. There are no barriers to rejecting students because they’re not rich, or went to crappy high schools, or studied the piccolo instead of the oboe in a year when you’ve already got enough piccolo players. Unfair, arbitrary, and venal admissions standards are part of the fabric of every selective college’s decision-making process.

And there’s something truly twisted about the argument that all of that is okay but affirmative action — precisely because it’s intended as a remedy for the country’s long history of racial discrimination, a history that didn’t end in 1865 or 1954 or 1963, but continues to this very day — is not.

When we as a country say that it’s right and just to accept one student because her high school had a great gymnastics program or her parents are big donors or her grandfather was a dean while while we simultaneously recoil at the “racism” of giving a boost to another student who, as a result of the nation’s persisting inequities, had no chance to acquire any of those advantages, we aren’t saying we want to move beyond our history of racial discrimination.

We’re saying we want to lock it in.

Folk singer Phil Ochs’ first album was 1964’s All the News that’s Fit to Sing. Only it wasn’t.

Sometime in the next few months we’re going to sail unknowing past the 50th anniversary of the recording of Ochs’ real first album, a record he appeared on anonymously and kept secret until his death. Released in 1963 — nobody knows when in 1963 — under the name of a non-existent band called The Campers, “Camp Favorites” was a cheap quickie album of kids’ camp songs that Ochs recorded for hire with a (still anonymous) female singer, a banjo player, and a small kids’ chorus.

Ochs biographer David Cohen first stumbled across the existence of the album in 1998, and wasn’t able to actually confirm its existence until two years later. If you’re an Ochs fan it’s a great story, told in full here. And now that it’s 2012, most of the tracks on the album are up on YouTube.

Which brings me to this next bit.

Cannibal King is a camp song I’d never heard of before, though Googling shows that it’s still kind of popular. It can be found in a variety of different versions in a variety of different places online, but here are the lyrics from the Ochs version:

A cannibal king with a brass nose ring fell in love with a beautiful maid
And every night by the pale moonlight across the lake he came
Oh a hug and a kiss for the Zulu miss in the shade of the old palm tree
Every time they met they sang a duet and it sounded like this to me…

Kiss kiss … kiss kiss … kiss kiss dah dee dah doh-oh-oh
Kiss kiss … kiss kiss … because he loved her so

Now a guy named Jim who was mighty thin fell in love with a stout young maid
Each afternoon they’d sit and spoon when nobody else was home
Oh a hug and a kiss for the sweet young miss in the shade of the old pine tree
Every time they’d meet it was oh so sweet and it sounded like this to me…

Kiss kiss … kiss kiss … kiss kiss dah dee dah doh-oh-oh
Kiss kiss … kiss kiss … because he loved her so

Oh a Congo chief who had false teeth fell in love with a Congo maid
And every dawn just as sure as you’re born he’d stop to say hello
Oh a hug and a kiss for the Congo miss in the shade of the yum-yum tree
Every time he came it was just the same and it sounded like this to me…

Kiss kiss … kiss kiss … kiss kiss dah dee dah doh-oh-oh
Kiss kiss … kiss kiss … because he loved her so

An Indian brave began to rave when he saw an Indian miss
He built a new canoe for two and paddled her every night
Oh a hug and a kiss for the Indian miss as they sailed across the sea
They both got wet but they sang a duet and it sounded like this to me…

Kiss kiss … kiss kiss … kiss kiss dah dee dah doh-oh-oh
Kiss kiss … kiss kiss … because he loved her so.

Ah, 1960s kid culture. Not hard to see why Phil didn’t tend to brag about it.

When the student union at the University of Florida was built in 1967, students requested that it be named in honor of outgoing university president J. Wayne Reitz. Today, students are fighting over whether that name should stand.

As UF president, Reitz participated in a purge of gay faculty and students that involved the firing and expulsion of dozens of people. During his administration, the university also failed to integrate until placed under court order, and then only haltingly, and in 1967 a popular professor was denied tenure  because of his political views.

Student activists at UF want the union building renamed for Virgil Hawkins, a local black scholar who fought a ten-year battle to integrate the UF school of law in the 1940s and 50s, but the attempt has run into resistance from the campus student government.

Student of color and LGBT groups on campus have held several demonstrations around the issue, with tensions rising after a popular law professor’s car was vandalized with the word “faggot” in mid-September.

Activists collected five hundred signatures in recent months in favor of a non-binding campus referendum on the name change, but student government officials have attempted to block it twice — first by claiming that the signatures were improperly obtained, and then, when that challenge was rejected, by objecting to the wording of the referendum question. Critics of the student government say the body is being improperly influenced by the Reitz family, who remain major donors to the university.

In a late September ruling the student government court stripped the contested language from the question, but allowed the referendum to be placed before the students, with the referendum expected later this month.

1. Trust is a risk worth taking.
2. A rough beginning can be a reason for optimism.
3. The people you are in awe of are often in awe of you.
4. Sleeping on a church floor is a beautiful thing.
5. The road is long because it’s supposed to be long.
6. Sharing stories is life-altering.
7. The beloved community exists in a state of constant reinvention.
8. Where the movement is now … is thrilling.

“The University of California was a young, comparatively small institution when I entered there in 1885 as a freshman. … My class numbered about one hundred boys and girls, mostly boys, who came from all parts of the State and represented all sorts of people and occupations. … We found already formed at Berkeley the typical undergraduate customs, rights, and privileged vices which we had to respect ourselves and defend against the faculty, regents, and the State government.

“One evening, before I had matriculated, I was taken out by some upper classmen to teach the president a lesson. He had been the head of a private preparatory school and was trying to govern the private lives and the public morals of university “men” as he had those of his schoolboys. Fetching a long ladder, the upper classmen thrust it through a front window of Prexy’s house and, to the chant of obscene songs, swung it back and forth, up and down, round and round, till everything breakable within sounded broken and the drunken indignation outside was satisfied or tired.

“This turned out to be one of the last battles in the war for liberty against that president. He was allowed to resign soon thereafter and I noticed that not only the students but many of the faculty and regents rejoiced in his downfall and turned with us to face and fight the new president when, after a lot of politics, he was appointed and presented. We learned somehow a good deal about the considerations that governed our college government. They were not only academic. The government of a university was — like the State government and horse-racing and so many other things — not what I had been led to expect. And a college education wasn’t either, nor the student mind.”

—The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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