As the Supreme Court takes up affirmative action once again, the word “diversity” has found its way into many legal briefs. For me, it is not an abstract concept. If today I am a supportive colleague, a successful civil rights lawyer, a good citizen in the broadest and best sense, it is thanks to affirmative action.
I arrived at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1988. I didn’t have far to travel. I crammed my belongings into my used Honda and drove to the other end of the county. In 40 minutes, I crossed over into a new world.
I came from a large public high school that was 92% white and 6% Asian-American. While I was growing up, Asian-American kids often suffered racist jeers and sometimes physical attacks. I felt hurt and rage about this, but didn’t know what to do about it. I lacked the intellectual and social tools. I don’t recall race being a subject of public conversation, even in our social studies and English classes. It was a good school and we had fun in our suburban way, but I was waiting for better days.
When I got to Berkeley, I experienced – there is no other way to describe it – liberation. In my dorm, in my classes, in student groups, my little world cracked wide open and in came a flood of new people and new ideas. I was thrown in with African-American kids from South Central L.A. and small Central Valley towns, Asian-American kids from majority-Asian schools in Hawaii and southern California, Chicano kids from border towns, my white roommate from a tiny town in the Sierra Foothills, and another roommate who was a rare bird from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. My friends and neighbors were rich, poor, middle-class, gay, straight, disabled, able-bodied, Republican, Democrat, Maoist (I’m not kidding). Sometimes we got along, and sometimes we didn’t.
Keeping Cal’s tradition of student protest alive, there were sit-ins for faculty diversity. We were living in the 60s. We were living in the 80s. We fought against tuition increases. We fought for an ethnic studies requirement for all undergraduates. Other Cal students fought just as hard against us. We went to football games. We went to work for McKinsey and Bain. We worked for the Center for Third World Organizing. We went to law school, med school, grad school, public policy school. Among my undergrad friends and acquaintances, I can now count a director of an arts institute at Stanford University, the Speaker of the California Assembly, a Los Angeles city councilman, an education policy director for former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, doctors, engineers, lawyers of all sorts, internet entrepreneurs, academics in various fields (including at least one person still working on his Ph.D.), a CPA, a former Paralympian and current YMCA trainer, a middle school teacher, and a couple of hedge fund managers.
We were a mystery to one another. But we became less so as we talked late into the night and listened in the classroom and read books. I remember sitting in a student senate meeting one night when someone burst into the room and shouted, “L.A. is on fire!” after the Rodney King trial verdict. We learned to get along. We came through the fire together and it made us stronger.
Some smart and forward-thinking people designed the undergraduate admissions policy at Berkeley to make the future of California brighter. And because we are still working at it together, it is and will be.
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