Proposition 16: Why some Asian Americans are on the front lines of the campaign against affirmative action

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Six years ago, when California lawmakers mounted a campaign to repeal the state’s ban on affirmative action in college admissions, Chinese American opponents of the proposal flooded lawmakers with calls, emails and petitions. Their campaign, mobilized on the group messaging app WeChat and in Chinese-language media, was successful, and the constitutional amendment died in the Legislature.

This year, a better-organized effort to repeal the ban has put Proposition 16 on California’s November ballot. It’s an even broader initiative that would reverse the measure approved by voters in 1996 banning any consideration of race and gender in public college admissions, as well as other government functions such as hiring and contracting. The initiative’s supporters have dwarfed their opponents in fundraising and endorsements, but a poll released this week found Proposition 16 is trailing badly among voters.

One potential factor: Proponents of affirmative action are once again facing vocal resistance from some Asian American families — in particular, from more conservative recent Chinese American immigrants — who fear it will mean fewer spots for their children at top University of California schools.

“The opposition is fixated on higher education,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a University of California, Riverside professor who studies Asian American political attitudes.

Members of the No on 16 campaign, which has held car parades and rallies in several East Bay and Peninsula suburbs and picketed outside the Los Gatos headquarters of Netflix after founder Reed Hastings’ wife donated $1 million to the Yes side, downplayed the importance of college admissions in interviews.

“Everyone knows that in the Asian community, that their kids have to be very, very good to get into a good college — that’s an open secret,” said Frank Xu, a San Diego IT consultant and member of the No campaign who came to the United States from China in 2005. “Proposition 16 will make it worse, but that’s not the biggest concern.”

Instead, Saga Conroy, another member of the opposition who immigrated to the United States from China in 2009, said she and other first-generation immigrants oppose affirmative action because it offends their more traditional notions of America as a land of equal opportunity, where anyone can make it if they work hard. The proposition’s supporters say that has never been the American reality and that systemic racism means that a level playing field is a myth. Conroy and others in the No campaign, which calls itself Californians for Equal Rights, disagree.

“California is so diverse, and we (treat) everyone equally,” she said. For immigrants, “Prop 16 doesn’t fit into their American journey.”

Still, Sunny Shao, a doctoral candidate who works with Ramakrishnan and tracks political activity on WeChat, said concerns about college admissions are “the main mobilizer” against Proposition 16 on the wildly popular platform. And nationwide, Asian Americans have similarly been on the front lines of fights against affirmative action programs at Ivy League colleges and top New York City high schools.

At 20.5%, Asian American students had the highest admission rates at University of California, Berkeley last year, compared to 17.9% of White students, 14.4% of Latinx students and 11.6% of Black students. A similar pattern held at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Black and Latinx admission rates to Berkeley and UCLA, the system’s most selective campuses, plummeted after California’s ban on affirmative action 22 years ago.

In the zero-sum world of college admissions — where an acceptance letter for one student means rejection for another — affirmative action opponents worry that increasing the number of Black and Latinx students will by definition mean fewer White and Asian students will make it in.

On WeChat, Shao said, opponents have circulated exaggerated and false claims about Proposition 16, writing that it would create racial quotas at UC schools or cut in half the number of admitted Asian American students. The truth: A Supreme Court ruling has outlawed quotas in college admissions since the 1970s, and Proposition 16 would not itself create any affirmative action program. By repealing California’s ban, it would only give the UC System and other government entities the option of enacting such policies.

An applicant’s race and gender would be one of many factors colleges could consider when deciding whether to admit them, said Vincent Pan, the executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and a co-chair of the Yes on 16 campaign.

“Many of the fears that the No side has been mongering around just could not come into reality,” he said.

The Asian American Voter Survey, a separate poll that Ramakrishnan oversees, has consistently found that most Asian Americans as a whole support affirmative action. But while that support has remained steady over the years among other nationalities, it has fallen substantially among Chinese Americans.

The latest survey, released this week, found Chinese Americans opposed Proposition 16 by a 38-30 margin; the other 32% of voters were either undecided or didn’t know. Among all Asian Americans, 36% said they supported the proposition, while 22% were opposed and 42% were undecided or didn’t know. The survey received support from Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a group that supports affirmative action.

Another poll, released Wednesday from the Public Policy Institute of California, found 51% of White voters oppose Proposition 16, while 26% are in favor. The survey, which did not have enough responses from Asian Americans to detail their views, found just 31% of voters overall support the ballot measure.

Pan said the concerns of a small group of Asian American families’ are being exploited by those who have always opposed affirmative action: “White conservative ideologues (who) have never shown an interest in creating equality and equal opportunity for our communities.”


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