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Affirmative Action: A Time for Change?
By Caleb Rosado
Department of Urban Studies
March 3, 1997
The author suggests that a great deal of the controversy over the affirmative action debate is a failure to distinguish between "fair play" and "fair share." America is caught up with justice as fairness which raises questions in the minds of many who are not familiar with the original purposes of affirmative action, which was focused on fair share, or justice as need. Debunking the whole meritocracy argument, Rosado goes on to show that the current attack on affirmative action is another manifestation of institutional racism. He then suggests a more workable model of affirmative as one based on individual need rather than on group traits such as race or color. What is really needed in society, however, is a shift to a new social ecological paradigm of interconnectedness and interdependence for the 21st century.
The current debate over affirmative action, like all other hotly contested issues such as multiculturalism, bilingual education, immigration and the like, often ends up disseminating more heat than light. This is largely due to the polar perspectives that people tend to take, in a desire to undermine the other¹s position. The result is often a failure to see that the truth may lie somewhere in between. There is thus much need for illumination on the subject for an understanding beneficial to both sides of the issue.
Affirmative action emerged in the 1960s as a result of efforts by the civil rights movement to get America to honor its original contract, that "all [people] are created equal." In addition the Pledge of Allegiance promises "liberty and justice for all." This idealism is a promise of equal opportunity for all individuals regardless of color, national origin, race, religion and sex, which up to this point in history had not been honored for people of color. While first addressed to the needs of African-Americans, later on the needs of American Indians, Asian-Americans and Latinos were added. For this and other "unalienable rights," the founders and followers of the civil rights movement marched and died, and finally obtained the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
However, such action by itself, prohibiting discrimination in the present and in the future, did not necessarily correct past inequities. So what if people now had equal access, the advantage would still go to those who had benefited the longest and most from past discrimination. I may have equal access to get in the same boxing ring with Mike Tyson, but that¹s no guarantee of an equal opportunity of winning. The odds are stacked in favor of failure. Therefore in order to correct for such inequities, especially in the areas of housing, education, and employment, steps were taken to ensure that those groups that historically had been excluded or given limited access to societal rewards, were now given an opportunity to catch up. Thus, affirmative action refers to social policies encouraging favorable treatment of socially disadvantaged groups, especially in employment, education, and housing, without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, in order to reverse historical trends of discrimination and to create equality of opportunity for qualified persons.
Keep in mind that affirmative action is essentially a "race/gender solution" to a "race/gender problem," with middle class white women as the greatest beneficiaries. The latter have benefited most as a result of a "minority" status, which gives them a decided advantage over African-Americans and Latinos in obtaining contracts, entitlements, set asides and executive positions, when the concern of those in power is to keep access to privilege in the hands of "whites." This is why the term "people of color" emerged in the late Œ80s early Œ90s, to differentiate white women from racial/ethnic groups, since both are designated as "minority." There is no such thing, however, as a race/gender solution to a race/gender problem, since "race" and "gender " are not the problem. If they were then all one would need to do is to change one¹s race and/or gender. The problem is racism as the deliberate structuring of privilege by means of an objective, differential and unequal treatment of people, for the purpose of social advantage over scarce resources, resulting in an ideology of supremacy which justifies power of position by placing a negative meaning on perceived or actual biological/cultural differences.
No African-American person (or any person of dark skin color, for that matter) has ever suffered discrimination because of the color of their skin. There is nothing wrong with the color black. It is not skin color that forms the basis for discrimination, but the negative meaning given to the color of skin. As Roger Bastide declares, "Color is neutral; it is the mind that gives it meaning" (1967:312). Neither are women discriminated against because of their gender. Women are discriminated against because of the negative meaning given to their gender. Therefore the solution is not one of more "race or gender " but a restructuring of society through the elimination of culturally sanctioned strategies that defend racial/gender superiority and pride of position.
Here is where justice comes in. Genuine justice is not based on fairness! In fact, a preoccupation with justice as fairness lies at the root of most problems in our society and in the world today, whether between individuals, groups or nations, and is at the center of the affirmative action debate. At the heart of "justice as fairness" lies equal treatment, which wrongly assumes everyone is the same and thus the need for "fair play," which we all learn from childhood. But socio-historical circumstances preclude equality. This is why in some track and field events, the starting blocks are staggered, so that everyone will have an equal opportunity. Affirmative action, then, is equitable measures‹short of restructuring society‹which seek to make for a level playing field. Why? Because as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals."
There are many people today in America¹s class-divided society that, because of socio-historical conditions or merely accidents of birth, find themselves on the "inside track" and don¹t always realize that circumstances are stacked in their favor, but think they are playing on a level field. When they see the starting blocks being staggered, to give those on the "outside track" an equal chance, they cry out, "unfair," "reverse discrimination," "preferential treatment," not realizing that the playing field of American society is stratified. Short of totally redesigning the playing field of socioeconomic, political structures, affirmative action becomes essential in righting societal inequities. It is based on the "principle of redress," that undeserved inequalities call for rectification. Since inequalities of birth are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for. Thus in order to treat all persons equally and provide genuine equality of opportunity, society must give more attention to those born into or placed in less favorable social positions (Rawls, 1971). This "fair share" approach is a particularistic and not a universal action, since it is an attempt to place particular groups in the position that they would have held had there been no barriers in their paths to success (Willie, 1991).
However, this approach places affirmative action in a catch-22 situation. Created on the idealism that the rights of individuals should be respected without regard to color, national origin, race, religion, or sex, it ends up in the dilemma of contradicting this very premise by giving a perceived "advantage" to underrepresented groups. (Keep in mind that since the playing field of our American class-structured society is not even, what affirmative action is doing is not really an "advantage" but an effort to make for a more equitable field.) How then does one solve this supposed "dilemma" at the heart of the current debate? The solution is found in the essence of justice. Genuine justice is based on need, not fairness. And since people¹s needs differ, due to differing socio-historical circumstances, true justice does not spring from what people deserve, but from what they need. It is not fair play but fair share, based on individual need.
Many people are opposed to affirmative action because they believe it violates a sense of fairness. This is a result of the "Just World Phenomenon." Stanley Coren (1992) explains the concept this way:
People tend to feel that the world is, with a few bumps here and there, pretty much a fair place, where people generally get what they deserve and deserve what they get. This notion of a just world results from our training as children that good is rewarded and evil is punished. A natural conclusion can be drawn from that kind of reasoning: Those who are rewarded must be good, and those who suffer (even from our own discrimination and prejudice) must deserve their fate.Unfortunately, much of what passes for racism in America today is not regarded as such by Whites, because they buy into this Just World Phenomenon. The result is that they tend to see situations from their own perspective‹as fair and just‹and seldom from the perspective of the Other, the victims of evil. If women and people of color see themselves as victims it is often believed they bring it on themselves or are making a bigger issue of things then there really is need for. The end result is that when it comes to injustice in American society, most Americans "naturally" gravitate to the role of bystander and do nothing. But tell me, where was the fairness in slavery? in the genocidal destruction of American Indians? in stealing half of Mexico from Mexico? in placing 120,000 Japanese-Americans in concentration camps? in our cities operating segregated school districts within the same area with vastly disparate budgets for each? in congress passing laws that benefit the richest one percent of the U.S. population while denying basic survival rights to the poorest twenty percent? Why is it that many conservative Americans are loudly silent on these forms of injustice or preferential treatment based on class? Can it be that this obsession with strict fairness tends to manifest itself only when there is a danger of someone else getting more than what we think she/he deserves, especially when what they get is precisely what we want?
The Concern With Meritocracy:
Such a question raises a couple of concerns when it comes to affirmative action hires. The first is that the minority person hired probably would not have been hired had it not been for affirmative action. First, many people, and some minorities, are opposed to affirmative action because they perceive it as some kind of "social charity" program or government "handout" which makes people feel inferior. But this is merely a case of perception. Veterans from the various wars have been receiving economic and educational benefits as a result of the G.I. Bill, whether or not they had experienced combat duty, where draftees or had enlisted. Yet none of them nor society at large has perceived this as unfair, or seen it as program that makes people feel inferior for accepting such benefits. Prior to the 1960s White males did not have to compete with persons of color nor women for the best jobs or academic positions in this country. Strangely, none of them felt inferior for such preferential treatment. Most welfare money in this country goes to the rich in the form of entitlements, economic incentives, tax breaks and corporate pork (Carney, 1995; Alterman, 1995). Yet, none of them feel inferior for taking such government dole outs. As Bernie Ward, of KGO Talk Radio in San Francisco, says, "Why do politicians feel that if we give money to the rich it is good for the economy, but if we give money to the poor it is bad for the economy?" The truth of the matter is that if it were not for affirmative action most women and persons of color would not be in positions of leadership, no matter how qualified they are. This is because the purpose of affirmative action is to broaden the pool of qualified candidates. Thus, the perception of affirmative action as charity making people feel inferior needs drastic revision.
The second concern is with that word "qualified." The objection is often raised that a more qualified person was turned down. Thus behind affirmative action is an underlying assumption that any person hired through such efforts is not really qualified, and would not have made it through normal channels except for affirmative action. While some may find a few extreme examples as evidence to support this argument, why is it that the person eliminated‹usually a white male‹is always seen as the more "qualified" candidate? Why is it that unqualified white people never seem to come up in these discussions? Have people not heard of "The Peter Principle"? The late Dr. Laurence J. Peter published his principle in 1969, before minorities were ever a factor, because of the overwhelming number of white males in key positions who had risen to their level of incompetence [read "without qualifications"]!
What¹s behind this push for a "qualified" person is a disingenuous belief in meritocracy‹the notion that a position should go to the most capable person who has earned it. It is disingenuous in that the push for meritocracy only rises when those who have claimed a privileged status in American society now see it threatened. The means by which to defend this elitist position is by changing the rules. Meritocracy is merely an ideology by which the elite seek to preserve their privileged status. No one is questioning the fact that people should be qualified for a job or position. But don¹t change the rules in order to maintain privilege and power through a system that denied people not only access but also the qualifications by which to compete on an equal basis. Such a system is called "institutional racism." Institutional racism is the conscious manipulation of the structures of society's institutions so as to systematically discriminate against people of color by their prestructured practices, policies and power arrangements. Merely conforming to the institution¹s mode of operation frees individuals from personal discrimination, as the institutions now do the discriminating for individuals (Baron, 1969). It is the most pervasive and powerful expression of racism in American society.
Our society is so structured that most people, especially Whites, buy into this institutional racism without personally having power or being personally aware that they have power or that they are in a situation of privilege. As Peggy McIntosh says, "As a white person I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage . . . I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring domination on my group" (McIntosh, 1988).
Audrey Smedley (1993), in her outstanding book, Racism in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, brings out the force of White privilege and its expression in institutional racism, in the following statement.
Race in the American mind was and is tantamount to a statement about profound and unbridgeable differences. In whatever context race comes to play, it conveys the meaning of nontranscendable social distance. This sense of difference is conditioned into most individuals early in their lives and becomes bonded to emotions nurtured in childhood. In the United States, it is expressed in all kinds of situations and encounters between peoples. It is structured into the social system through residential separation, differential education, training, and incomes, and informal restrictions against socializing, intermarriage, and common membership in various organizations, including, most visibly, the church. It is reflected in virtually all media representations of American society and in institutional aspects of culture such as music, the arts, scientific research, educational institutions, politics and political forums, businesses, the theater, television, music, and film industries, and recreational activities. It provides the unspoken guidelines for daily interaction among persons defined as of different races, especially black and white. It sets the standards and rules for conduct, even though individuals may not always be conscious of this fact (p. 21).Such institutional expressions of privilege are not readily perceived by Whites as "privilege" but as the "normal" day-in and day-out opportunities of life, to which everyone has access. However, when, as a result of demographic and political changes, Whites see their status and the landscape of social power changing, this heretofore unseen privilege now becomes most visible. "We are probably never so aware of phenomena and objects as when we are about to gain or lose them. Conversely, we never take them so much for granted as when we are assured in their possession" (Smith, 1986:7). When threatened, this previously unseen privileged status becomes something to be protected at all costs. Blacks tend to do the same when they sense Latinos and Asians encroaching on their hard-fought gains and privileges. This kind of exclusive behavior cuts across all race groups, not just Whites, and is correlated with a sense of a loss of power and privilege. Langdon Gilkey puts it this way. "When [people] give their ultimate devotion to their own welfare or to the welfare of their group, they are no longer free to be completely moral or rational when they find themselves under pressure. Whenever the security of the object of this commitment is threatened, they are driven by an intense anxiety to reinforce that security" (Gilkey, 1966:231).
It is under such conditions that people will riot, both Blacks and Whites. People riot when they feel frustrated. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that, "A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard" (King, Jr., 1968:112). This is usually the experience of persons of color, who due to their state of powerlessness will often burn, loot and destroy. But White people riot also, just in a different way. Whites riot, not by burning and looting, for one does not burn down what one owns, but by using the system over which they have control to pass laws and ordinances which limit the opportunities of others in order to secure their "rights". These legislations, in the long run, are destructive of more lives than any riots which loot and burn. The two propositions passed in California, Proposition 187 in 1994, the Save Our State Initiative, which sought to protect the rights of legal U.S. residents by not granting the same rights to undocumented immigrants; and Proposition 209 in 1996, the Civil Rights Initiative, which eliminated affirmative action laws, are both examples of the way White people riot. When you have control of the socioeconomic and political system, you will use this power to retain your privileges when you see these being eroded. Thus, both Blacks and Whites riot, just in different ways; one as an expression of powerlessness, the other as an expression of power. This latter mode is what institutional racism is all about. The current attack on affirmative action is a manifestation of this form of institutional racism.
Some people object, however, that affirmative action has not really worked. Yes it has, and some of us minorities would not be where we are today if it were not for affirmative action. Yet, it could be more effective if it were not attacked at every step. Prior to affirmative action women and people of color were kept out of the playing field of economic and academic competition. As a result of affirmative action they have been given access to the track. But in the race to success and achievement, one group has been given a clear lane with no obstacles, while the other has had to jump over hurdles. White males, for example, comprise just 43% of the workforce, yet hold 92% of all senior level positions in Fortune 500 companies (Glass Ceiling Commission). In view of the disparity of outcomes in some situations, politicians, educators and some researchers, all blame the obstacled runners and fail to recognize the obstacles that have been thrown in their path. Among these are: the glass-ceiling, unequal funding of school systems, treating first-generation college students the same as second and third-generation students, the presence of few mentors and role models.
But some will counter. How do you explain the Asian-American success story? They too are first-generation, especially the recent comers from Southeast Asia? And also come out of poverty conditions? A survey of most schools will show that most Asians will gravitate to the sciences‹math, physics, chemistry, engineering. Why? These are disciplines in which English is not a crucial factor. Research by Caplan, Choy and Whitmore (1992) shows that in the liberal arts Asians don¹t do as well as in the sciences. Another factor, one which Caplan and company regard as "one of the most powerful independent predictors of academic performance," is retention of their own culture, traditions and values, while being open to American ways. These serves as anchors under conditions of social upheaval.
Paul Kivel suggests that, "one indication that attacks on affirmative action are part of a white backlash against equality is that affirmative action in the form of preferences that primarily benefit white people is not being questioned" (1996:172). Kivel shows the way people deny the existence of racism and why affirmative action is not needed, through illustration of how men deny responsibility of violence against women and are seem unable to acknowledge such violence. The tactics used and the typical statements made to justify the actions taken have a progress character, that go from total denial to outright justification. The following chart is an extension of ideas drawn from Kivel (pp. 40-48) to include affirmative action.
RETAINING BENEFITS OF RACISM, WHILE AVOIDING RESPONSIBILITY TYPICAL STATEMENT TACTIC VIOLENCE RACISM/ AFFIRMATIVE ACTION 1. Denial "I didn¹t hit her." "It¹s a level playing field."
2. Minimization "It was only a slap." "Achievement mostly depends on personal ability."
3. Blame "She asked for it." "Look at the way they act."
4. Redefinition "It was mutual combat." "People of color are also racist."
5. Unintentionality "Things just got out of hand." "Hey, discrimination is a fact of life."
6. It¹s over now "I¹ll never do it again." "That was a long time ago, things are different now."
7. It¹s only a few men "Most men wouldn¹t hurt "Most people aren¹t a woman." racist."
8. Counterattack "She controls everything." "It¹s reverse discrimination."
9. Competing "Everybody is against men." "White males have rights Victimization too."
10. Justification "She deserved it." "They bring it on themselves."
As long as racism continues to be a structural reality of American society, all talk of affirmative action as reverse discrimination is an "in-your-face" form of hypocrisy, since racism is nothing less than preferential treatment based on affirmative action for whites. First get rid of racism then come and talk about removing affirmative action and creating a color-blind society. Racism is so much a part of the social fabric of American society, that, as Claud Anderson suggests in Black Labor, White Wealth, "The only way America will ever be color-blind is if everyone literally lost their sight" (1994:55).
Part of the problem is the number of conservative Christians in this country that don¹t always see the connection between the gospel and their politics (Rosado, 1995a,b). The result is often an unbalanced approach that, while rightly concerned with saving the lives of the unborn, does not show the same compassion for the countless others who suffer "social" deaths as a result of political policies of neglect and negation. Thus what they "preach" on Sabbath is not matched by what they vote on Tuesday, in the name of "legal fairness."
The solution to the affirmative action debate or debacle is to base the program, not on group conditions but on individual need. Just because one is Black, female or of Mexican heritage does not automatically mean that one is at a disadvantage. Many an African-American person, or Asian-American, or Latino is doing quite well in this country, and should not be judged as disadvantaged and automatically deserving of affirmative action programs, simply because of their color, race, national origin or gender. There are many whites in this country that are worse off than most. But because they are "white" are they to be deemed not worthy or deserving of special treatment? If the measure for equity is need rather than race or gender than the apparent problem is resolved. Affirmative action then becomes a program to help the socially disadvantaged‹of any hue‹based on individual need and not on arbitrary group factors of race, national origin or sex. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind, as Coretta Scott King reminds us, when "he spoke out sharply for all the poor in all their hues, for he knew if color made them different, misery and oppression made them the same" (King, 1967:vii). Affirmative action, or more correctly "compensatory action," will then come in line with the idealism of our constitution, benefiting individuals and not merely groups. Obviously those who have been most socially disadvantaged because of their race, ethnicity or gender, will also be the individuals greatest in need.
In situations where there is a representational need‹for greater color, gender, or ethnic balance‹color, gender and ethnicity will continue to be factors in correcting for such inequities. Yet even with all this, because of "colorism"‹discrimination based solely on color‹people of color outside of their professional context will continue to experience rejection, such as the difficulty in catching taxi cabs or followed in stores. Thus, color can never be completely set aside in addressing issues of affirmative action. But again, the focus is on need‹the need for greater balance‹and not just on race or gender.
Such a plan can be easily implemented by using as a measure the vast social science data already available which show people¹s socioeconomic status in society: income, occupation, schooling opportunity, quality of life and influences in the neighborhood, quality of education received, per student expenditure, family life, whether from a single-parent or a dual-parent home. All these factors are good indicators of socioeconomic need.
Utilizing this measure, then, enables us to see the need for a new definition of affirmative action, such as the one by Anamaría Loya, attorney for MALDEF, which moves the concept from group to individual need. "Affirmative action is any measure, policy or law used to increase diversity or rectify discrimination so that qualified individuals have equal access to employment, education, business, and contracting opportunities" (1995:1). As Abdín Noboa says, "Affirmative is not about counting heads, it is about making heads count."
Paul Kivel raises a crucial point whites need to ponder. "When whites attack affirmative action‹if they are truly committed to American ideals of justice and equality‹they should be proposing other remedies for racial inequality in our society. The hypocrisy is clear when white people who say they support equal opportunity attack affirmative action, yet want to leave intact the basic economic and racial injustices it is designed to correct. Ask people who oppose affirmative action how they propose to eliminate racial discrimination. You can learn a lot about their true beliefs from their answers" (1996:178).
The problem today is that most people are caught up in vertical models of hierarchies of domination‹the old paradigm, while the changing times call for horizontal models of cooperative networks‹the new paradigm (See graphic). Vertical models tend toward a static/exclusive worldview and mode of operation. Emerging from patriarchal, male values, they are concerned with power, independence and domination. Horizontal models, on the other hand, are dynamic, inclusive and relevant to the changing times. Focused on networks of cooperative action, they are more reflective of female values of interconnectedness. The point where these two models meet is the area of conflict, where the two approaches and their proponents come in contact with each other.
Affirmative action cannot be understood, however, in isolation of other major social problems, such as racism, economic exploitation and political gerrymandering. These are systemic problems, interconnected and interdependent on economical and political policies, and cultural values that legitimize inequality. As Fritjof Capra suggests, "Ultimately these problems must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most of us, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world" (1996:4). A change of perception is needed. This is one that moves people away from the old paradigm of exclusion to the new paradigm of inclusion; one that enables people to see the Other not as a "potential predator" but as a "profitable partner" ; one that shifts our values from domination to cooperation; one that transforms our ethics from selfish disconnectedness based on greed to socio-spiritual integration based on compassion.
The 21st century will be focused on interconnectedness, not just technologically, but humanly, environmentally and spiritually. A new paradigm, a social ecological worldview, is thus needed that sees the world and all its life-forms as an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts in competition. The model of affirmative action that I suggest here is a leaning in this direction.
Yes, the time has come to change affirmative action. Not to get rid of it, however, but to strip it of all political barnacles weighing it down, and streamline it back to its original purpose‹to safeguard an equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic, historical, biological or cultural circumstances, whether accidental or deliberate. Affirmative action then will be seen as an "on-ramp" program to bring people up to social speed so that they not get run over in the socioeconomic, political highway of life, but may enter it safely in their societal journey toward the third millennium.
Alterman, Eric. 1995. "The Reich Stuff." Mother Jones, July/August, pp. 50-51..
Anderson, Claude. 1994. Black Labor, White Wealth (Edgewood, MD: Duncan & Duncan).
Baron , Harold M. 1969. "The Web of Racism," in Louis L. Knowles & Kenneth Prewitt, Institutional Racism In America (Prentice-Hall, Inc.).
Bastide, Roger. 1967. "Color, Racism, and Christianity," Dædalus, special issue on Color and Race, Spring: 312-327.
Carney, Dan. 1995. "Dwayne¹s World." Mother Jones, July/August, pp. 44-49.
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King, Coretta Scott. 1967. In "Preface" of Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, ).
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Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Rosado, Caleb. 1995a. "Affirmative Action and the Gospel." Message July-August 1995, pp. 4,5,14.
Rosado, Caleb. 1995b. "God¹s Affirmative Justice." Christianity Today November 1995, pp. 34-35.
Smedley, Audrey. 1993. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press).
Smith, Anthony D. 1986. The Ethnic Origins of Nations (New York: Basil Blackwell).
Willie, Charles V.. 1991. "Universal Programs Are Unfair to Minority Groups," The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 4, B2,3.
Caleb Rosado. has taught sociology at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL, Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and most recently at Humboldt State University, in Arcata, CA. Born in Puerto Rico, Rosado received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1985. He specializes in race relations, Latino studies, multicultural education and the sociology of religion. In addition to his engaging teaching, he is a popular consultant on diversity and multicultural issues with corporations, colleges, churches and community organizations. He has published three books on race, religion, and women, and is now working on a fourth, on diversity and multiculturalism in the workplace for the 21st century. At the time this article was submitted for publication, Rosado was Visiting Professor of Sociology at Walla Walla College, College Place, WA.