In California, SCA 5 may be DOA due to Asian Americans against affirmative action

For a change, there’s a movement to restore affirmative action, and not to end it.

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 challenges 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 underrepresented.

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 debate.

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, 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 5.

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 others.

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 worse.

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 for all.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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