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Silence at Boalt Hall: The Dismantling of Affirmative Action. (Books).

By Andrea Guerrero

You've got to give U.C. Press props for publishing and promoting this frank, up-close portrait of the rise and fall of race-conscious admissions on its home turf. U.C. Berkeley's prestigious Boalt Hall law school makes a fine test case, as one of first institutions to conceive of affirmative action for students of color, and one of the first--30 years later--to rescind it.

Guerrero, a Mexican American immigration attorney, offers a unique perspective. She was a member of the last class admitted to Boalt under affirmative action and a leading organizer in student campaigns to revive it. Her exhaustively researched account begins with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and takes us on a journey into the sociopolitical climate that created proactive programs to help realize equal access to higher education for underrepresented people of color and white women. Guerrero fleshes out the macro-impact of affirmative action upon the generation of alumni of all colors who attended Boalt, and the crushing impact of its demise. At the height of affirmative action, Boalt students of color founded innovative programs like La Raza Centro Legal, which combated the dearth of services in the Latino immigrant community. After proactive admissions was defeated, the editorial staff at Boalt's once booming African American Law and Policy Report dwindled to five.

We get the pedigrees of all the major players in the debate--everyone from Brown v. Board of Education-pioneer Justice Thurgood Marshall, to Ward Connerly, the ubiquitous anti-affirmative action poster child, to deans, students, and alums. Silence does a thorough job of untangling myths about the cultural objectivity of the LSAT, about fairness in numbers-based admissions, and the problems inherent in so-called colorblind programs that seek "merit" and "excellence" while overlooking the question of race.

For readers who still need convincing, Guerrero makes a compelling case throughout the book for the benefits of affirmative action to all students. A critical mass of professors and students of color broadens the curricula, opens up meaningful dialogue, and provides cross-cultural role models to enrich the legal field in the interest of justice everywhere.

In one scene, we see Alistair Newbern, a pro-diversity white student who entered Boalt in 1997--the year the law school enrolled one African American student--at a protest, her first day on campus. Newbern is standing next to a placard that says "Little Rock Had Nine." We later learn that Newbern actually graduated from Little Rock High School, where in 1957, the National Guard had to help forcibly integrate the all-white student body. Ironically, U.C.'s affirmative action program came and went in the intervening 40 years, before Newbern came to California to witness a virtual ghost town left in its absence. We also meet Norma Aguilar, a classmate of Newbern's whose immigrant parents never finished elementary school. Aguilar gets her first taste of diversity at Boalt during a student-staged "walk-in" when 30 minority students from other law schools take the seats of white students who've volunteered to step out of class. "[Aguilar] was uplifted by the demonstration, but was also saddened that her class experience that day was only a protest, and the following day she would still be one of the few Latino students in the room." The year is 1997.

Silence is a bit info-heavy at the start, but the pace picks up considerably when Guerrero steps into history and begins telling the stories of the irrepressible last class, bumping up against an administration that keeps saying its hands are tied. We get plum facts: like the anecdote about the signature gathering firms Connerly contracted with, for 70 cents a signature, that had trouble getting women and ethnic minorities--who made up the bulk of their workforce--to collect signatures for a measure that contradicted their own interests. The narrative puts us on the front lines--behind the scenes at protests, hustling clipboards for petitions--when Connerly's regressive programs kick in. With the advantage of hindsight, we know what's coming: The number of students of color at Boalt plummets. What follows are series of eloquent eulogies for the untimely demise of affirmative action by students, community leaders, professors, and alums.

After California turned its clock back with Prop 209, voter-initiated bans took hold in at least four other stares. Guerrero ends the book by reviewing recent cases that will bring the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions before the Supreme Court again this spring. Silence is replete with useful charts, facts, and quotations for student activists and budding lawyers wishing to pick up the gauntlet where yesterday's resistance movement left off. To think that Boalt isn't admitting students like Guerrero anymore is an irony the University of California will have to live with.
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Author:Banks, Gabrielle
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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