The Chinese-American Community Grapples With Affirmative Action, and Itself

A proposal to repeal part of California's affirmative action ban has some in the state's Asian-American community up in arms.

By Julianne Hing Mar 18, 2014

In California, a potential repeal to the state’s longstanding affirmative action ban has reignited a decades-old debate in the Chinese-American community over fairness and equity in education. And it’s not been pretty.

On Monday, California Assembly Speaker John Perez and state Sen. Ed Hernandez announced that they will hold off on moving forward with SCA5, a proposed constitutional amendment that would repeal the education provisions of Prop 209, an affirmative action ban. The hesitation came after a crop of established conservative and newly inflamed, ad hoc Chinese-American groups worked to squash the effort. 

Groups such as the Chinese-American Institute for Empowerment, the National Council of Chinese Americans and the Chinese Alliance for Equality turned to social and ethnic media after SCA5 cleared the California Senate in late January to mobilize the community to oppose the bill. By leaning on classic anti-affirmative action rhetoric and a healthy dose of fear-mongering–namely by telling Chinese-American parents that the revival of affirmative action in the state would sanction racial discrimination against their children–opponents forced the California state legislature to put the brakes on the effort to end the state’s longstanding ban on race-conscious admissions in higher education. Chinese-American opponents, who refer to the amendment as Skin Color Act 5, urged community members to target Asian-American lawmakers who have supported it. State Sens. Leland Yee, Ted Lieu and Carol Liu all voted for SCA5 when it cleared the Senate in January, but by late February expressed a change of heart.

"Prior to this vote, we heard no opposition to the bill," the senators said in a statement. "However, in the past few weeks, we have heard from thousands of people throughout California concerned about SCA5." Over ethnic media and in recent community forums scattered throughout the state, opponents to SCA5 have been sounding the alarm about the bill they say would pave the way for discrimination against Asian-American students who often academically out-perform other students of color and occasionally even whites.

The point of affirmative action policies, won alongside protections against racial discrimination codified in the Civil Rights Act, has been to offer a small remedy to address the enduring legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and centuries of state-sanctioned racial subordination. To some, the debate over whether affirmative action constitutes racial discrimination against Asian-Americans is a red herring, an unproductive diversion from the real, pressing issues of educational inequity in this country and the original intent of affirmative action. But some Asian-Americans are all too willing to take the bait. A petition launched in late January to stop SCA5 has garnered more than 100,000 signatures. The petition urges the California State Assembly to oppose SCA5 because it will "roll back the clock to discriminate a student simply based on her/his race." SCA5 opponents started a White House petition that has no actual concrete demands, but spells out SCA5’s adverse impact on Asian-Americans. "SCA5 seeks to unfairly punish Asian-Americans simply based on race," it says.

With their opposition to SCA5 Chinese-Americans join a conservative movement that has sought to dismantle affirmative action and any effort to protect people of color from racial discrimination. The most visible opponents to SCA5 though are new and first-generation Chinese immigrants based in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles and in the South Bay in the Bay Area.

Hernandez is going to put SCA5 on hold so he can assemble a commission and head up and down the state to host community forums to collect feedback and do some myth-busting about SCA5 and race-conscious admissions policies, says Hernandez’s spokesperson Janet Chin. A common misunderstanding among SCA5 opponents is that ending the state affirmative action ban will allow colleges to use racial quotas in their admissions decisions, Chin says. In fact, racial quotas haven’t been in use since 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled that such practices are unconstitutional.

Affirmative action is a form of discrimination against Asian Americans, maintains Chin Ho Liao, a city councilman from San Gabriel, and passing SCA5 would be tantamount to punishing Asian students for their academic successes. "Affirmative action is too naive. It’s the easy way out," Liao says. "If [students admitted after a consideration of race] graduate, they’re not going to contribute to society." 

An Old Debate in a New Landscape

There’s unfortunately not much new about the rhetorical stance of SCA5’s Asian-American opponents. Asian Americans have been grappling with affirmative action for decades. In the mid-1990s a group of Chinese-American parents whose children were denied admission to Lowell High School, San Francisco’s top public high school, used similar rhetoric when they sued the city’s school district to successfully undo a federal consent decree at Lowell and dismantle the school’s diversity program. The federal mandate barred any one racial or ethnic group from becoming more than 40 percent of a magnet school’s student body. Then, as now, progressive Asian Americans called on Chinese-American affirmative action opponents to think past their own community or even their own families’ self-interests, to little avail.

"There is no doubt that Asian Americans benefitted from the efforts of the blacks during the civil rights movement," says S.B. Woo, a former lieutenant governor of Delaware and the founder of the conservative Asian-American group 80-20. "Way back five decades ago, maybe some affirmative action is required to get things going because people are not accustomed to seeing colored folks speaking out or having an important position or going to good universities. But five decades later are we still talking about that? It’s time to change."  

The loudest Chinese-American affirmative action opponents have not been shy about voicing thinly veiled anti-black and -Latino sentiments. "Other ethnic groups don’t put their kids’ education as number one priority," says San Gabriel city council’s Chin Ho Liao. "You don’t realize how much Asian parents sacrifice. Asians are minorities, and even though we’re doing very well, we should be the role model for other minorities. If you punish us for that, that is wrong."

Those statements don’t sit well with some in the Asian-American community. Today, "Asian-Americans appear ready to make a terrible mistake," says UC Hastings Law School Dean Frank Wu, "I’m embarrassed by some of the racist rhetoric being offered by so-called Asian-American community leaders."

The most vocal Chinese-American opponents to SCA5 do not represent their entire community, nor do they speak for all Asian Americans. The National Asian American Survey found that 75 percent of Asian Americans support affirmative action. And according to a list compiled by the blog Reappropriate, groups like Chinese for Affirmative Action, Hmong Innovating Politics and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center have all been responding to the anti-SCA5 backlash by announcing their very public support for SCA5.

But the anti-affirmative action fear-mongering is powerful. Woo, the founder of 80-20, frequently cites Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and researcher Alexandria Walton Radford’s 2009 study, which found–in Woo’s words–that "Asian-American applicants to first-tier universities on average must score 140 points higher than whites and 270 points higher than Hispanics and 450 points higher than blacks." The findings are evidence that the consideration of race leads to an unfair anti-Asian bias, Woo argues.

Don Nakanishi, a professor emeritus of Asian American studies at UCLA who’s been involved in admissions work at Yale University for decades, says it plainly isn’t. "Espenshade only had access to quantifiable factors. So much more goes into the admissions process." Espenshade, it should be noted, disagrees with Woo’s interpretation of his study’s findings and said his data don’t amount to proof of anti-Asian bias in the admissions process. 

Winning a coveted seat at one of California’s elite public universities requires much more than a 4.5 GPA and high SAT scores. California’s elite public universities look at more than a dozen factors, including whether a student has shown a commitment to community service or whether she or he has achieved academic success despite "a student’s life experiences and special circumstances," when constructing their freshman classes. And Prop 209, California’s 1996 ban on affirmative action, did not result in an admissions windfall for Asian-Americans. In fact, according to a policy brief released last week by the Asian-American civil rights advocacy group Advancing Justice-Los Angeles and other civil rights groups, in the nine years before Prop 209, Asian American and Pacific Islander enrollment at UC Berkeley jumped from 26 to 41.9 percent. But in the 16 years after Prop 209, Asian American and Pacific Islander enrollment increased only six points, to 48.2 percent. 

Educational Equity Beyond Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has always been an insufficient tool to remedy a broad structural problem rooted in social and economic and racial inequity. In California, where affirmative action hasn’t even been in existence for the last 20 years, issues of educational inequity begin at an early age. More than 40 percent of California schoolchildren live at or below the federal poverty line, and black students in California are six times as likely as white students to attend schools ranked in the bottom third in the state. Latino students are four times as likely as white students to attend schools ranked in the bottom third (PDF). 

As of the 2010-2011 school year, California ranked 46th in per-pupil spending in the nation, according to the California Budget Project (PDF), and 50th in the nation when it came to the number of students per librarian. Between the years 2008 and 2013, California cut its public higher education spending by nearly 30 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and in the same span of time tuition at the UC and state college systems has ballooned. Expansion of public higher education access hasn’t kept pace with the state’s growing population and shifting demographics. All this is why some would rather use this moment to steer folks toward a larger conversation about educational equity, and structural forces which shape a child’s educational opportunities long before a child might ever need to file a college application.

"Even if you repeal Prop 209 within the status quo, you still have the status quo," said Karin Wang, Vice President of Programs and Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. While a full repeal of Prop 209 would be ideal, she says, in the meantime Advancing Justice-LA is working with other groups and lawmakers to craft a legislative proposal that tackles educational equity issues more broadly.

"Regardless of what happens with SCA5, the silver lining is that it’s raised issues of educational equity and access," she said. "Some people are ready to hear a larger message."