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

SCA 5: A political coming-of-age story for Chinese-Americans

SCA 5 opponents protest the proposed ballot initiative at a rally in Cupertino.
SCA 5 opponents protest the proposed ballot initiative at a rally in Cupertino.
Leo Wang/Flickr Creative Commons

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Prospects for Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 started out rosy.

The proposed ballot measure sailed through the state Senate late January. A Democratic supermajority voted in favor of asking Californians to allow race-conscious admissions at public universities – a practice banned by voters in 1996.

SCA 5 headed next to the Assembly, and that's when things got bumpy. Chinese-language media got wind of the legislation, and fanned parents' fears that their children would lose college spots to students from other racial groups.

Throughout February, opponents used social media and email lists to organize rallies and town hall meetings in heavily Chinese communities throughout Silicon Valley and the San Gabriel Valley. Politicians were bombarded by emails and phone calls. A Vote No to SCA 5 petition has drawn more than 114,000 signatures.

"If a student works hard, he or she should be given a fair chance to get into any college," said Kenny Hsu of the Southern California Council of Chinese Schools.

RELATED: Affirmative action bill SCA 5 'dead for the year'

By Monday, Assembly speaker John Pérez announced he was withdrawing SCA 5 from consideration, citing insufficient votes for it to pass. Legislative leaders did not call out Chinese-American opponents, but Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg said in a statement that he was "deeply concerned anytime one ethnic group turns on another."

Whether these Chinese-led groups were justified in their opposition to SCA 5 is a matter of great debate in and out of the Chinese-American community. But the SCA 5 episode makes something clear: Chinese-Americans, despite the majority being foreign-born, have reached a level of political maturity where they can marshal forces statewide quickly and effectively, and deftly apply political pressure tactics.

Political scientist James Lai of Santa Clara University doubts many of the protestors would have shown up at rallies carrying placards when they were new immigrants.  

“But over time they acculturate and they understand that they also have a place in American politics,” Lai said. “This is their new home.”

In a nod to their adopted country, some SCA 5 opponents invoked the legacy of its greatest civil rights icon by borrowing from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>【反对加州SCA-5 华人疾呼(图)】(看中国记者张定综合报导)加州参议院1月31日以27:9通过了拉丁裔议员Ed Hernandez的SCA-5提案,要求加州公立大学招生 ... <a href=""></a> <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; 看中国 (@kanzhongguo) <a href="">March 1, 2014</a></blockquote> <script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script>

Shedding 'fumu guan'

Chinese have been in the US since the 18th century, laboring in mines during the Gold Rush and helping to build the Transcontinental Railroad. But the greatest wave of arrivals from China did not happen until after 1965, when the US liberalized immigration laws.

Today, Chinese make up the largest Asian ethnic group in California —more than 1.2 million — trailed closely by Filipinos, according to U.S. census figures.

In Sacramento, seven of the 11 members of the Asian Pacific Islander caucus claim Chinese heritage.

The California Asian & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus

A decade ago, there wasn’t one Chinese-American senator. Now there are three – Ted Lieu, D- Torrance; Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge and Leland Yee, D- San Francisco. All voted with their party to pass SCA 5, much to the chagrin of Chinese-American political activists. 

“Asian-American politicians have been spoiled by new immigrant immaturity toward politics,” said S. B. Woo, president of 80-20, the Chinese-led political action committee that’s been fighting SCA 5. 

Woo, lieutenant governor of Delaware in the 1980's and a former Democrat, said many Chinese immigrants have outdated views of how politics work.

“In Chinese culture, elected officials must be the great scholars and you respect them like parents. Fumu guan,” said Woo, referring to the Chinese idea of a patriarchal government. “That’s a feudal way of thinking.”

But the fight over SCA 5 shows how old attitudes are changing. Under pressure from constituents, the Chinese-American senators backed away from SCA 5, and publicly asked the Assembly speaker and SCA 5 author Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, to stop the legislation from advancing.

Opponents targeted the lower house too. Assembly member Ed Chau, D-Monterey Park, who was confronted by protestors outside his district office, vowed not to support SCA 5 in its current form. So did Assembly member Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton. She’s in a competitive race with Young Kim, a Korean-American Republican who has come out against SCA 5.

The fight over education

The political influence of Asian-Americans — the fastest-growing demographic — will only continue to grow. Thousands of immigrants are getting naturalized every year and their US-born children are reaching voting age.

Education is a top priority for most Asian-Americans, but Chinese-Americans have been the most visible in fighting for access to the schooling they want. In one high-profile case, Chinese-American families sued the San Francisco school district in the 1990s for restricting how many Chinese-Americans could attend the highly-selective Lowell High School.

While a settlement overturned those race-conscious admission rules, there is a sense that affirmative action is still widely used, like at elite universities in the East which many Chinese-Americans hope to attend.

"From the Chinese-American point of view, they’re typically on the short end of the stick when it comes to admissions," Lai said.

This long-simmering history with affirmative action, coupled with growing political savvy, invigorated the fight against SCA 5.

But Lai said there are plenty of other people of Chinese descent who support affirmative action, including himself. And there are members of Chinese for Affirmative Action and Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles.

Karin Wang, AAAJ's vice president of programs and communications, said those who grew up in the US often recognize that "many of us are able to achieve what we’re able to achieve because we benefited from civil rights advancements that happened before us."

Indeed, some Chinese-Americans have shown their support for SCA 5 with tweets using the hashtag #notyouraffirmativeaction or #noliesnohate. 

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Asian Americans need to stand with other people of color to ensure equal opportunity for all. Support <a href=";src=hash">#SCA5</a>! <a href=";src=hash">#noLiesnoHate</a></p>&mdash; Alton Wang (@altonwang) <a href="">March 7, 2014</a></blockquote> <script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script>

Karin Wang hopes SCA 5 opponents will join a broader conversation about improving access to higher education for students of all races, given that California's public universities have been strapped for cash.  

"Why have the seats available in the public colleges and universities not kept up with the growth in population of the state over the last 50 years?" Wang asked.

A legislative task force being formed in the wake of SCA 5 is expected to serve as a venue for this discussion.

In the meantime, others are focused on keeping SCA 5 from resurfacing.

To discourage Democrats from reviving SCA 5, the group 80-20 is urging Chinese-Americans to register as Republicans before the primaries.

"Parties check registration records," said Woo, who became an independent in 2000 . “It would be a very good warning to all the extreme liberals in the Democratic Party."

Here's an excerpt from Woo's recent e-mail blast:

So far, 80-20 reports that several Chinese-American groups throughout the state, including San Diego Asian American for Equality, have signed onto the registration drive.

Playing one party against the other, Woo said, is one of democracy's best traditions.

Because of an editing error, Woo was identified earlier as a Democrat. He is a former Democrat, and now independent.