Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Complicated relationship: Asian-Americans and affirmative action

Laurel Directo thinks students should be judged by merit. At the same time, she recognizes she had an advantage as the daughter of engineers who valued education and sent her to good schools.
Laurel Directo thinks students should be judged by merit. At the same time, she recognizes she had an advantage as the daughter of engineers who valued education and sent her to good schools.
Josie Huang/KPCC

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Laurel Directo was just 4-years-old when race-conscious admissions were banned from California’s public universities in 1998.

Now 20, and attending UCLA, Directo doesn't think schools should go back to using affirmative action.  

"I would hope they would admit us on based on our merit and achievements, and not, you know, our race," Directo said. Still, she recognizes the advantage she had as the daughter of Filipino engineers who sent her to good schools in Irvine.

"Is that necessarily fair?" Directo wondered aloud. "I don’t know."

RELATED: Affirmative action amendment has some Asian-Americans furious

Directo's opinion is just one of many you'll hear from Asian-American students now that affirmative action has re-entered the campus dialogue.

State legislators are considering putting a question on the statewide ballot that asks voters whether they want affirmative action back in higher education. Supporters of the SCA 5 legislation sponsored by Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, say this would allow schools to freely recruit talented students from underrepresented groups such as African-Americans, American Indians and Latinos. 

By contrast, Asian-Americans comprise the largest minority group in the UC system. And some in the community worry that SCA 5 — which passed the Senate in late January and faces a vote in the Assembly — poses a threat to their children's ability to get into the state's universities.

Chinese-American-led organizations such as the 80-20 National Asian American PAC have pressured Assembly members to reject the measure in its current form, jeopardizing the supermajority vote it needs to pass.  A petition to stop SCA 5 now tops 109,000 signatures.

But views about SCA 5 are far from uniform across the Asian-American community, or within certain ethnic groups.

(Jazz Kiang | Credit: Josie Huang/KPCC)

UCLA student Jazz Kiang is from Boston, the son of parents who hold graduate degrees. As a Chinese-American, he's part of the largest group of Asian-Americans on campus. Although affirmative action is unlikely to help him, he supports it.  

“I challenge people to think about our larger community issues that go beyond just your own individual meritocracy," Kiang said.

UCLA education professor Robert Teranishi said his research has shown that a diverse campus actually benefits Asian-Americans.

“Diverse campus settings prepare all students to better engage their communities and to better compete in an increasingly globalized economy," said Teranishi, principal investigator for  The National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education. "They’re better citizens. We can build a stronger democracy.”

But Teranishi said this may be a hard sell across the Asian-American community, which is wide-ranging "in terms of ethnicity and social class backgrounds, and immigration histories and political views."

Teranishi said where Asian immigrant households are similar is the emphasis placed on education.

What's different is access to education. Chinese, Indians and Koreans who came to the US after immigration laws were loosened in the mid-60s tend to be more affluent. Immigrants from war-torn southeast Asia, as well as Pacific Islanders, have a harder time economically.

(Tony Tonnu | Credit: Josie Huang/KPCC)

Tony Tonnu said growing up the child of two Vietnamese immigrants who didn't complete college, he didn't get the tutoring some of his schoolmates in Westminster did.

Tonnu’s mom struggled to understand why he wanted to take Advanced Placement tests because that cost money or join after-school clubs.

“It was very inconvenient for her to have me in these extracurriculars because then she’d have to go from work after a 10-hour shift and then pick me up," Tonnu said.
Despite the grumbling, his mom did it. But not all Asian parents will — or can.
“A lot of Asian-Americans have this conception that ‘Oh, if we just work hard we’ll get to where we are, and be successful but that’s not necessarily true," Tonnu said. "When you think about merit, that’s if everything is a level playing field.”

(Hon Hoang | Credit: Josie Huang/KPCC)

UCLA student Hon Hoang feels differently: "I think if you honestly put your mind to it you can really go where you want to go," he said.

A Vietnamese immigrant who grew up in Rowland Heights, Hoang said he studied hard so he could transfer from a community college to UCLA.
"My parents worked minimum-wage kind-of-jobs," Hoang, 23, said. "Seeing how hard they had to work pushed me to not squander the opportunity that I have."
Hoang may not have to worry about affirmative action coming to campus that soon.  Assembly members Ed Chau, D-Monterey Park, and Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton have said they will not vote for SCA 5 until constitutents' criticism of the bill are addressed, thus robbing the measure of the two-thirds vote it needs.
Sen. Hernandez's communications director, Janet Chin, said he has been meeting with concerned constituents and politicians, hoping to change their minds. But Chin said it's unlikely his bill will pass before a late June deadline, and that Hernandez is setting his sights on the 2016 ballot.