Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Repealing Affirmative Action in California: Discrimination or Diversity?

If there’s any particular issue of contention among the Asian-American community lately, it’s the issue of the return of affirmative action.

California’s Senate Constitutional Amendment No.5 (SCA-5) seeks to remove the provisions of California Proposition 209 and allow state universities to consider race, gender, color, ethnicity, and national origin as factors in the admission process. When the amendment passed in the California Senate on January 30, it reignited this highly controversial topic, particularly among the Asian-American community. This is a highly simplified breakdown of the chief arguments:

  • Supporters of the bill, led by its author, State Senator Edward Hernandez, believe that SCA-5 would allow the percentages of Latino, African American, and Native American students in California public universities to grow. He stated that these numbers had significantly declined following implementation of Proposition 209 and that the removal of the relevant provisions would promote diversity within the California public university system.

  • Critics of the bill argue that it is a form of discrimination and advocates preferential treatment for certain racial groups. It logically follows that this preference comes at the expense of other groups, perhaps contributing to racial tensions in California. They also argue that Senator Hernandez’s data supporting a post-Proposition 209 decline in diversity was skewed and contradicts public records, which conversely demonstrate an increase in minority populations among the University of California (UC) system.


A colorblind system?

Historically speaking, the Asian-American community has typically been relatively politically passive. On February 28, however, opposition to the bill incensed more than 500 Chinese-Americans to gather in protest before the office building of State Assemblymember Ed Chau in Sacramento, urging him to vote against SCA-5 in the State Assembly. Opponents called the bill “Skin Color Act 5”, citing significantly higher admissions criteria for Asian-Americans than their counterparts.


Asian-Americans protest affirmative action

(Photo: AALDEF)

Asian-Americans constitute less than 5% of the U.S. population, significantly less than the percentages of African Americans and Latinos. Despite their minority status, race-based admissions programs would actually work against the Asian community because of disproportionately high test scores and general scholarship. In California, the population is larger, with 14.9% of the population being of Asian origins. In admissions, however, Asians constitute 36%. The implementation of a “quota”, so to speak, would decrease the current Asian presence in the UCs and other public schools. It’s because of this process that many Asian-Americans feel that they are being unfairly penalized for their high rates of success.

It is a dialogue driven by fear. Many of the protestors are afraid of the impact SCA-5 would have on them and their children’s prospects at entering the highly competitive UCs. Fear easily converts to anger, which resulted in political activism. Currently, the Change.org petition against SCA-5 has gathered more than 100,000 supporters within 3 weeks.

The broader issue here is the issue of “positive discrimination”, or “reverse racism”, as some call it, which, for many, have become synonymous with affirmative action. The current discourse on affirmative actions ranges from dismissive to apoplectic. This is the debate that I plan to address in the near future, though delving into such a controversial topic requires careful diligence.

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