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November’s Prop. 16 affirmative-action initiative sets off lively debate among Asian Americans

“Stop divisive and racist Prop 16!” reads a giant banner, held up by masked protesters at a recent Arcadia rally. “Keep discrimination illegal!”

More than 500 community members drove in to a car rally at Arcadia County Park on Saturday, Aug. 8 to oppose Proposition 16, an initiative on the Nov. 3 California ballot which would legalize race-aware decisions in public college admissions, hiring and contracting.



Many disagree over whether affirmative action is inclusive or discriminatory, but no one doubts it is a divisive issue in the Asian American community. Members of a vocal portion of the community in California has become leading opponents of Proposition 16 — part of a deeper, contentious relationship between Asian Americans and affirmative action.

“(Proposition 16) is unacceptable, unconstitutional and unfair to Asians,” said Fenglan Liu, a rally attendee and community organizer in the San Gabriel Valley.

When California adopted Proposition 209 in 1996, it became the first state to ban discrimination or preferential treatment based on race or sex in public education, employment and contracting. Controversial since its inception, the initiative has been accused of stymying diversity in public institutions.

Last year, San Diego-based Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber introduced Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 5 to repeal Proposition 209. The motion soared through the California State Assembly and state Senate in June, and will appear as Proposition 16 on November’s ballot.

Such opposing organizers as Liu may be experiencing déjà vu — in 2014, Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5 made a similar attempt at repealing Proposition 209. Strong opposition, led by Asian Americans, quashed the initiative.

This second time around has proven different. Conversations about racial equality have shifted within the Asian American community, with more young and diverse voices speaking out in support of Proposition 16. When young voters turn out in November, they may turn the tide on affirmative action in California.


Local Asian American movements for and against the initiative have been unable to reconcile despite shared interests. Proposition 16 has been endorsed by many organizations, such as the California API Legislative Caucus and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a legal advocacy group.

The opposition has been more homegrown, led by concerned parents and students who worry that California’s public universities will shut them out. A petition on called “Vote No On Proposition 16 (ACA-5)!” has collected a whopping 139,000 signatures and counting.

The debate has largely centered on affirmative action in college admissions, though the initiative will also affect public hiring and contracting decisions. Voter surveys conducted by AAPI Data, a research group at UC Riverside, have generally reported that more Asian Americans support affirmative action than oppose it. The research center, which disaggregates Asian American and Pacific Islander census data, found that opposition is most often led by Chinese Americans.

Opponents like Liu worry affirmative action will discriminate against Asian Americans, who have earned the largest proportion of undergraduate University of California enrollment since 2003. Liu imagined a disastrous future of unqualified doctors and lawyers as products of affirmative action.

“Why should schools lower their standards to let people go to school by the color of their skin?” Liu asked.

Opponents of Proposition 16 also have found affirmative action a superficial and unsatisfactory solution to inequality — “two wrongs don’t make a right,” said Wenyuan Wu, executive director of Californians for Equal Rights. Wu and her organization, which headed the car rally in Arcadia, say Proposition 16 devalues merit and legalizes discrimination without addressing systemic barriers.

“(Proposition 16) fundamentally rejects the principle of equal treatment by trying to legalize preferential treatment,” Wu said. “The bill does nothing about addressing root causes behind disparities and achievement gaps in education. We need equal opportunities, not equal outcomes.”

Victoria Dominguez, education equity director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, recognizes distrust of affirmative action is often based on myths, she says. Affirmative action is a holistic admissions process that considers an applicant’s background as one of many factors — not an unconstitutional quota system, as many Asian Americans fear.

“A lot of misinformation and fear-mongering is being strategically put in our communities that don’t have an understanding or trust in our public institutions,” Dominguez said. “We’re not trying to villainize these folks. We understand where the hurt and mistrust is coming from.”

Whether affirmative action would actually harm Asian American students’ chances in college admissions is harder to assess. A report by the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, a research team at UCLA, compared admissions rates of undergraduate Asian Pacific Islander applicants in the UC system within the past 20 years to find out.

From 1997 to 1998, the year race-blind admissions policies were implemented, admissions rates for those applicants declined at five of the eight UC campuses (excluding UC Merced, which opened in 2005). By 2009, admission rates for Asian Pacific Islander applicants had decreased at every UC campus except UC Riverside.

The report concluded that UC admission rates do not provide adequate evidence that Asian Americans benefit from race-blind college admissions policies, suggesting that Proposition 209 actually harmed Asian Pacific Islander applicants. Still, declining admission rates may have been confounded by demographic increases in Asian Pacific Islander applicants.


As California universities’ student bodies become more diverse, their institutions are responding as well. In June, the UC Board of Regents unanimously endorsed ACA 5, and California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White published a commentary supporting ACA 5. Asian Pacific Islander leaders in the Los Angeles Community College District announced in an August news release their support for the pro-Proposition 16 coalition Opportunity for All.

Asian American students, who have a personal stake in affirmative action policies, are split on the issue. UCLA student Amy Ho serves as the Internal Assistant Director of UCLA’s Asian Pacific Coalition, which issued a statement in support of ACA 5 and condemning anti-Black sentiment in the Asian community.

As a Southeast Asian student, Ho believes the holistic approach of affirmative action will benefit Asian American students as a whole, she said.

“Now (colleges) have a chance of looking at you as a person, looking at the struggles you might have faced because of your skin color, and I think a lot of Asians might benefit from that,” Ho said.

Ho’s support for Proposition 16 also stems from solidarity with Black and Latino students, who are historically underrepresented in higher education. Rifts within the Asian American community and between other groups are “part of a long history of this country trying to pit minorities against each other and making us fight for scarce resources,” she said.

“If Asian American students come out and champion (Proposition 16), then it’ll show to other communities of color that we are there for them, that we’re not just thinking selfishly about ourselves, and that we do see that our struggles are tied together,” Ho said.

The Proposition 16 debate has centered around affirmative action in public universities, but education is only one component of the initiative’s three-pronged push for diversity. Melany De La Cruz, associate director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, highlighted the importance of holistic hiring and contracting for Asian Americans in the workplace, the world beyond college.

“Affirmative action programs are much needed to close equity gaps in employment, education and contracting,” De La Cruz said. “We often don’t think about how contracts help small businesses and how employment helps better representation at higher levels of leadership, from corporate to government positions.”

De La Cruz, a Filipina who grew up in a rural town in California, credits affirmative action programs and an ethnic studies degree for her work today at UCLA’s Asian American Studies center, addressing racial inequality in America. Even within the Asian Pacific Islander community, vast disparities in educational attainment and income are often overlooked, she said.

“Asian Americans are not just one homogenous group. There are a lot of groups that don’t have the advantages and privileges that other groups do,” De La Cruz said, pointing to disparities often experienced by students from Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds.

The average UC admissions rate for Asian Pacific Islander students was 72% in fall 2014, higher than the total average of 62%. But disaggregated data reveals that while Taiwanese, Chinese and Indian students’ rates pushed 80%, Laotian, Samoan and other Pacific Islander students’ rates fell below 50%, according to a report of UC admissions statistics by the Campaign for College Equality.


Not all who agree with the principles of affirmative action are convinced by Proposition 16, the bill itself. Jeffrey Lee, a recent Arcadia High School graduate, supports increasing diversity in schools, but worries affirmative action is not a complete solution. Lee believes income levels should be an equal factor alongside race, he said.

“Affirmative action is a step in the right direction, but it’s like a Band-Aid,” Lee said. “Affirmative action should be in conjunction with programs in colleges and high schools to support minorities in lower income areas.”

Open conversations with family and friends helped Lee see both sides of the bill, he said. Ultimately, he is unsure whether Proposition 16 truly will help those it seeks to assist.

“I can’t help but feel that it leads to a society where people don’t expect as much out of those who benefit from affirmative action, which can be hurtful,” Lee said. “I hope this is not controversial, but maybe with affirmative action, some people might be getting into schools that might not be the best fit for them.”

Lee’s take is indeed controversial — three students who expressed similar views during interviews requested not to be named, fearing backlash from peers.

Regardless of their public stances, Asian Americans will have a chance to candidly act on their beliefs come November. With Proposition 16 on the ballot, the fate of many Californian students will be in their own hands as first-time voters. Dominguez believes the bill will challenge Asian Pacific Islander voters to think about civil rights, solidarity and pushing the envelope of diversity and equity in California.

“Twenty four years ago, a different generation made a decision,” Dominguez said. “Now it is time for a new California generation to make a stand on this issue.”

Source: Orange County Register

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