For a change, there’s a movement to restore affirmative action, and not to
Unfortunately, because of some short-sighted Asian Americans, SCA 5 may die
before it can get to the electorate.
SCA 5 is Senate Constitutional Amendment No.
5, which seeks to overturn Proposition
209 in California. That was the initiative that won a simple majority at the
ballot in 1996 and ended the use of race in all educational admissions, public
hiring, and public contracting.
Since then, Prop. 209 has been replicated like a bad seed to thwart
affirmative action, but not without legal
along the way, including in Michigan, where its version is now being
considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In California, Prop. 209 has survived all challenges at both the state Supreme
Court and at the legislative level. Meanwhile, the state’s black, Latino, and
segments of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, most notably
the Filipino, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander groups, remain woefully
Still, to overturn 209 is practically herculean. Having passed an initiative
process, Prop. 209 became a constitutional amendment. And to overturn that
requires amending the amendment–no small feat.
It hasn’t stopped State Senator Edward Hernandez (D-West Covina) from trying.
After three attempts to pass a measure to reverse Prop. 209, his latest, SCA
5, was approved in the Senate this year.
Now it goes before the State Assembly for a vote, and if it’s passed by a
super-majority there, it goes before the voters in a referendum as early as
Nov. 4 this year.
Climbing Mount Everest might be easier.
The political fight to kill it has already begun. Some Asian American groups
against affirmative action have jumped the gun and gone on the offensive,
targeting electeds, including some Asian Americans in both the Senate and the
Assembly in Southern California.
It’s a different role for Asian Americans, even in the affirmative action
Normally, the fight is over ending affirmative action, and Asian Americans are
trotted out by predominantly white anti-affirmative action groups as the poor
“aggrieved victims,” as in Texas and Michigan.
In this new California fight to reverse the ending of affirmative action, some
Chinese Americans, most of them new immigrants, have learned their political
role and have been quick to speak out first. And in a state like California,
where Asians are the second largest ethnic minority after Latinos, politicians
who are prone to ignore Asian Americans can’t dismiss such a vocal contingent.
Some public officials reportedly have tempered their support or have begun to
hedge on SCA 5.
On Change.org, over 100,000 signatures have been collected on a petition drive
opposing SCA 5. The comment box shows the standard responses, such as the
perversion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement, “I have a dream that my
four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be
judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
I doubt Dr. King would have supported Prop. 209. He would have supported SCA
Other comments: “SCA 5 is NOT fair to the student who study and work hard.
What a JOKE!”
And this: “I believe racial preference in college admission is not the right
practice and violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Children who study and work hard should deserve equal opportunity in college
admission regardless of their race and gender.”
And this: “Fairness is important! If a kid work harder and get better grade,
no matter what, the kid should have better chance to go to desirable school!”
With that kind of response, or confusion, some Chinese Americans are already
proclaiming SCA 5 dead.
Well, only if the politics of fear prevail.
While it’s admirable to see Asian Americans in the process, a deeper
understanding of what’s at stake with 209 beyond one’s short-term self
interests is important.
The fact is Prop. 209 was written by two white academics who were trying to
stem the tide of new competition from diverse groups in public education and
employment. All 209 did was preserve the overrepresentation of certain groups,
while making it impossible to do anything to remedy the underrepresentation of
If you can’t use race in admissions or hiring, as 209 has shown, it’s hard to
adequately address ways to increase the numbers of underrepresented groups.
Thus, Prop. 209 preserved the status quo. And in some cases, it made things
Since the passage of Prop. 209 in California, blacks have seen a 49 percent
drop in offers to UC Berkeley, and a 16 percent drop to UCLA.
The Asian American numbers have also dropped. UC Berkeley’s offers to Asian
Americans before 209 were up by 75 percent, and by 14 percent after.
But that’s just the freshman class.
If Asians are starting to sound like whites in this debate, it’s no mistake.
Asian Americans are the most overrepresented among all students in the UC
system. When you look at the overall numbers at all the UCs, ideally, you’d
want a public system to mirror the state’s population, wouldn’t you?
But look at the numbers:
- African Americans, 4 percent in the UC system, 7 percent in the state.
- Latinos, 28 percent at UC, 38 percent in the state.
- Whites, 24 percent at UC, 39 percent in the state.
- American Indians, 1 percent at UC, 2 percent in the state.
- Asian Americans, 40 percent at UC, 14 percent in the state.
That’s why Prop. 209 needs to be reversed.
The numbers are out-of-whack.
But the perception among the mostly new immigrant community in California is
that race-based policies hurt them, and they adamantly oppose SCA 5.
Some of them are blinded to the fact that as a minority in our democracy,
their interests are best served by working in coalition with African American,
Latino, Native American, and LGBT communities to fight for greater equity in
California’s top public entities.
That’s real strength in numbers. It’s not about fighting to preserve your 40
percent overrepresentation in the UC system.
Ironically, many of the Asian Americans against SCA 5 are in the scientific
community, where they see discrimination based on race or accent every day at
their labs. For them, the remedy has been simple. They have always relied on
working hard, scoring the highest in exams, and displaying their credentials
to prove their worth and become successful.
It’s what they know, and it can make sense in some contexts. In a true
meritocracy, maybe it should.
But even they know, it doesn’t always work in fighting the racism that people
of color still face in America.
For true equity and fairness, SCA 5 and the repeal of Prop. 209 makes sense