Asian-Americans halt CA affirmative action revival

Asian-Americans halt CA affirmative action revival

Leland YeeAs many Californians are well aware, more than half of students at UCLA and UC Berkeley are Asian or Asian-American. Yet, in California, proportions like these haven’t made for a political football — until now.

After almost 18 years of a ban on using affirmative action in college admissions after the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, state Democrats set about working to overturn the law. The plan was for SCA 5, by state Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, to pass both houses of the Legislature and secure voter approval. It would have brought back affirmative action.

That’s not the way things are turning out, thanks to California’s Asian-Americans.

Last week, saying they had received thousands of calls and emails from constituents, state Sens. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco; Ted Lieu, D-Torrance; and Carol Liu, D-La Cañada-Flintridge, asked Assembly Speaker John Perez to stop the bill.

“As lifelong advocates for the Asian-American and other communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children,” they wrote in a letter to Perez.

Now, SCA 5 is dead in the water — much to the delight of Republicans, who have championed the affirmative action ban all along.


Key to the sudden momentum shift are the complex of interests and alliances surrounding Asian-Americans. The San Jose Mercury News notes that the group’s historic support for affirmative action led state Democrats to assume SCA 5 faced clear sailing. More than a few organizations, the Mercury News reports, tout affirmative action as a benefit to some Asian communities that remain statistically underrepresented in colleges and universities.

The cognitive dissonance playing out around affirmative action in California underscores what’s at stake as different activist and interest groups struggle to lay down clearer markets in the identity politics debate. “What we need now,” one Asian-American Studies scholar told The New York Times, “is not to group everyone together into some mythical model minority but to have greater nuance in understanding Asian-American groups.” Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders needed special attention, she added.

Different kinds of colleges and universities have different kinds of access to affirmative-action outcomes. Ivy League schools, for instance, pride themselves on admitting at least one student per year from every state in the union, and every corner of the globe. America’s elite universities often possess more than an interest in recruiting star applicants from far-flung locales. They often possess a unique ability to attract him or her.

For less prestigious institutions of higher education, checking the long list of identity-political boxes is a taller order. There, the process of ensuring the level of ethnic, national, and regional diversity demanded by advocates tends to give way to broader goals — adding to the Asian portion of the student body, for instance, instead of increasing the number of Pacific Islanders.

That’s a trend which increases the role played by ethnic studies professors and identitarian organizations, to whom college administrators look for approval when trying to determine whether campus diversity levels meet or exceed expectations.

Ironically, the predominantly Chinese opposition to SCA 5 reflects an attitude toward upward mobility and a college degree that compounds the anxiety facing less-well-off Asian-Americans looking for social advancement through education. The political push against SCA 5 played off of Chinese-American fears, as Steven Hsieh put it in The Nation, “that students would lose university spots to underrepresented minorities if affirmative action is reinstated.”

For many Chinese-Americans, college is not just one option among many for the rising generation, but a make-or-break experience against which family success must be judged. As San Gabriel city councilman Chin Ho Liao bluntly argued, “Other ethnic groups don’t put their kids’ education as number one priority. You don’t realize how much Asian parents sacrifice.”

Case study

Protracted debates continue to swirl around just how much it benefits kids to be admitted into colleges where, for any reason, success eludes their grasp. As the Los Angeles Times reported in its 2013 case study of UC Berkeley freshman Kashawn Campbell, enrolling students in the quest for optimal diversity can usher in a host of unintended consequences.

The consequences include the kind of quiet contempt among fellow students that encourages campus thought policing to an even more unfortunate sense of inadequacy and fraudulence among affirmative-action beneficiaries.

Given the durability of the status quo in California, the U.S. Supreme Court offers a few useful guidelines:

  • In Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, the court outlawed explicit racial and ethnic quotas.
  • In Grutter vs. Bollinger, the majority affirmed that taking diversity into account was still acceptable.
  • In last year’s Fisher vs. Texas ruling, the court insisted colleges and universities demonstrate that looking at race was essential to increasing diversity.

Now, a decision is soon to come down in Schuette vs. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, where justices have considered whether a Michigan ballot initiative may make it illegal for state officials — including at public universities — to “discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.”


Among states potentially impacted by the Schuette ruling, California is already ahead of the game in one sense: the state’s Early Academic Outreach Program, first established in 1976, has become an effective means of boosting diversity by targeting economically disadvantaged students. A survey of the program at The Atlantic summarized the program’s results:

“The percentage of Latino and Chicano resident freshmen admitted to UC has increased, from 11.9 percent in 1998, two years after the affirmative action ban, to 27.6 in 2013. The increase of African American resident freshmen admits was more modest, from 3 percent, in 1998, to 4.2 percent in 2013.”

EAOP hasn’t restored minority admissions to the levels attained before California’s affirmative action ban. But it has increased them in a manner more consistent with state and federal law.

Tags assigned to this article:
Leland LeeTed LieuJames Poulosaffirmative action

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