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Affirmative action amendment has some Asian-Americans furious

Some Asian-American parents worry that race-conscious admissions will make it harder for their children to get into top-ranked public universities such as UCLA.
Some Asian-American parents worry that race-conscious admissions will make it harder for their children to get into top-ranked public universities such as UCLA.
David McNew/Getty Images

A proposal to reinstate affirmative action at California’s public universities is riling some Asian-American groups more than any recent political issue, with critics unleashing their anger on social media and in protests and public meetings.

At issue is a Democrat-backed bill that would lift a 1996 ban keeping University of California and California State University schools from considering race or ethnicity in admissions and recruitment.

SCA 5 – short for Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 – passed on a party-line vote in the state Senate late January, and if it’s approved by the Assembly, Californians could vote on the issue as early as this year.

RELATED: Complicated relationship: Asian-Americans and affirmative action

But opponents — the most vocal being Chinese-American groups — are lobbying Assembly members to stop the measure from ever getting on the ballot. They predict their children would lose deserved college spots to “underrepresented” minorities such as Latinos and African-Americans if race-based admissions were to return.  

“College-admission standards should reflect our efforts, not by race,” said Kenny Hsu of the Southern California Council of Chinese Schools, which represents weekend language schools attended by more than 20,000 students.

The SCA 5 controversy has spawned a “Vote No on SCA-5” petition on that has more than 100,000 signatures. And it’s led to passionate discourse in ethnic media like this:

Debate over SCA-5

SCA 5 is a response to Proposition 209, the ballot measure voters passed in 1996 to prohibit the consideration of race, ethnicity or sex in government institutions.

SCA 5 would undo language involving higher education. Supporters of SCA 5 say it's needed because college campuses do not reflect the demographics of an increasingly-diverse state.
In the UC system, Latinos, for example, accounted for 28 percent of UC freshmen in 2013, according to an analysis of UC enrollment numbers.  Statewide, though, Latinos represent 38 percent of the population, latest census numbers show. Meanwhile: 

  • African-Americans represent 4 percent of UC students;  they are nearly 7 percent of the state population. 
  • Whites make up of 24 percent of UC students; they are about 39 percent of the state population
  • American Indians are less than 1 percent of UC students, they are nearly 2 percent of the state population
  • Asian-Americans comprise 40 percent of students; they are about 14 percent of the state population.

Asian-Americans are the only racial group that has more representation on UC campuses than they do statewide. But this was the case even before Proposition 209. In 1997 - the year before race-conscious admissions ended— Asian-Americans made up 37 percent of UC students. Their enrollment rate has grown by about 3 percent since.  

Sen. Ed Hernandez, the West Covina Democrat sponsoring the bill, said SCA 5 would not, as some fear, create racial quotas, which have been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But it would let schools treat race as a consideration along with test scores and extracurricular activities, he said.

“It allows universities to go after and recruit the best and the brightest of every single group in the state of California,” said Hernandez, who pointed out that among Asian-Americans, Filipinos and Pacific Islanders could benefit.

Though prominent groups such as the 80-20 National Asian American P.A.C. are fighting affirmative action, one national survey indicates they are in the minority. 

The 2012 National Asian American Survey conducted out of UC Riverside shows about three-quarters of Asian-Americans support affirmative action:

The survey's director, Karthick Ramakrishan, said some opponents of affirmative action may be newer immigrants "who might be more focused on what might happen to their children than on the kind of relationship they're trying to build or maintain with other communities."

Hsu, who lives in Torrance and has a son in high school, said he feels that all minorities are already well-represented at California's public universities and there is no need to "make it more artificial."

SCA 5 struck such a nerve with Asian-American families like his, he said, because of the emphasis placed on education.

“One thing that reflects our value is that we all want to go to a so-called good university,” Hsu said. "If a student works hard, he or she should be given a fair chance."

Such concerns are being heard. All three Asian-American senators who voted for SCA 5 including Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, are tempering their support. And Assembly member Ed Chau, D-Monterey Park, promised in front of television cameras that he would not support SCA 5 in its current form. 

If Assembly members do not vote on SCA 5 before July, the measure would be pushed into the next two-year legislative cycle, and not go before voters until 2016.