Following opposition from Asian-American groups and conservative activists, California lawmakers killed a measure Monday that would have reversed a ban on affirmative action in college admissions.
Earlier this year, Democratic lawmakers in the state’s upper chamber passed an initiative (SCA 5) that would’ve let public university admissions officers consider race when selecting applicants, overturning parts of Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure that banned affirmative action in state institutions. The initiative, sponsored by State Senator Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), aimed to help reverse the “precipitous drop in the percentage of Latino, African-American and Native American students at California public universities” since Prop 209 passed nearly two decades ago.
In 1995, the year before California’s affirmative action ban, black, Latino and Native American students made up 38 percent of high school grads and 21 percent of University of California freshman, a seventeen-point difference. In 2009, they made up 51 percent of high school grads and 28 percent of US freshman, a twenty-four point difference. SCA 5 would’ve given voters a chance to help shrink that disparity.
But a grassroots campaign waged by Asian-American groups (predominantly Chinese) and supported by conservative officials successfully ended that push. Orchestrated by political nonprofits and Chinese-language media, the campaign tapped into fears among some Asian-Americans that students would lose university spots to underrepresented minorities if affirmative action is reinstated. Some ethnic media outlets trumped up erroneous claims that the legislation would impose racial quotas—a practice the US Supreme Court already declared unconstitutional.
Three Asian-American senators who originally supported SCA 5—Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), Ted Liu (D-Torrence) and Carol Liu (D-La Cañada/Flintridge)—flipped their positions after receiving thousands of calls and e-mails from worried constituents. In a letter to the Assembly speaker urging him to table the legislation, the senators wrote, “As lifelong advocates for the Asian American and other communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children.”
State Republicans and conservative activists took advantage of the moment, mirroring Asian-American groups’ anti-SCA 5 messaging. In an event organized by the Chinese-American Institute for Empowerment, State Representative Connie Conway (R-Visalia) told more than 150 community members, “Why work hard when that hard work will not be rewarded?” Ward Connerly, the author of Proposition 209 was more explicit, warning the crowd that SCA 5 would guarantee that “the number of Asians [in California universities] will be diminished and the number of Latinos will be increased…. That’s the whole objective.”
Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, told The Nation that anybody who has closely followed California politics shouldn’t be surprised by the rhetoric against SCA 5. “There’s been a desire among conservatives to perpetuate the model minority myth for a long time. One of the reasons is to hide other Asian-American communities,” Pan said, referring to Southeast Asian ethnic groups that represent some of the lowest college attendance rates in the country.