No Action for Affirmative Action

It started with a petition. It  misrepresented the issue, and grew into a two-month campaign of lies, fear and racism across ethnic media, special interests, politicians, and chain emails, until the political pressure from Asian Americans (really, Chinese- Americans and other East- Asians) forced the withdrawal of Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 (SCA5). So what was SCA5, and what would it have really meant for Asian Americans?

SCA5 was a proposed amendment to the California Constitution that, if approved by voters, would have deleted the “public education” clause in the language of Proposition 209.

Prop 209 was a 1996 amendment marketed as the “California Civil Rights Initiative” to prohibit California from considering race, sex, ethnicity, or national origin in its operations. Prop 209 was designed to kill affirmative action in California, but sought to do so under a legal climate where quotas have been absent since 1978. The immediate effects of Prop 209 were at least 10 percent drops in admissions of African Americans, Latinos and American Indians UC wide. Of note though, was that Asian-American admissions didn’t even blip, which is to say that Asian-Americans weren’t affected negatively OR positively by the new total ban on affirmative action.

We can’t talk about the “affirmative action” boogeyman of quotas and exclusion when we’re actually talking about “negative action.” What we commonly refer to as “affirmative action” is a range of possible policies. Affirmative action, which is affirmative, enhances inclusion and access for certain underrepresented or oppressed groups; that’s different from negative action, which are actions like quotas and caps that restrict and exclude certain groups, and would have still been banned even if SCA5 passed.

Neutral action is doing nothing affirmatively or negatively for a group, that’s simple. And race-conscious admissions is the federally-sanctioned middle ground where race is only one of many factors including extracurriculars, family background, leadership, etc, and might be a determining factor if ALL other factors, including merit and gpa, are equal. By the way, you did know that affirmative action only admits qualified applicants, right?

Let’s take a closer look at the facts anti-SCA5 rhetoric leaves out about Asian-Americans and supposed success in higher education. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted the decades-long racist and exclusionary ban on immigration from almost the entirety of Asia.

The Act also gave preferential treatment to highly educated and skilled immigrants, mostly East Asians, conveniently draining the newly post-colonial Asian countries of their first-generations of well-educated citizens, to provide more skilled labor for the US capitalist machine.

On the flipside, as this was going on, the US was bombing Southeast Asia and creating a refugee population of over 2 million, many of whom fled to the US’s working class neighborhoods with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Given these immigration conditions, it should be no surprise that they’ve translated almost directly into higher rates of higher education attainment for East Asians and much lower rates for Southeast Asians.

From this it should already be clear that SCA5, which was intended to only pave the way for race-conscious admissions, isn’t the terrible “anti-Asian” thing a lot of people thought it might be; in fact it would have helped many disadvantaged groups within Asian American communities at no expense of those more privileged.

But for the cherry on top, or really the foundational batter, there’s the implicitly racist language of anti-SCA5 rhetoric. Phrases such as “hard working,” “diligent,” “fairness,” and gratuitous quoting of that one line from the “I Have a Dream” speech, have appeared throughout the narrative. It’s a little ironic that the people who objected to a supposedly “racist” bill would themselves employ classic racist stereotypes in the process  assuming that black, Latino and American Indian students are somehow less hard working than Asian-Americans.

I can’t address every angle right now, so here is a quote:

“Finally, APAs must be mindful of their own blindspot: We possess a “simultaneity” in which we can be both victim and perpetrator of racial oppression. We must reject a self-congratulatory embrace of the model minority myth and reject policies justified only by the narrowest self-concern. Most importantly, we must denounce the prejudice within our own communities, which allow us to care less about social justice and more about individual self-interest. In coalition with all those genuinely committed to social justice, we can together pursue a transformative program of social and economic expansion informed by the sort of deep democratic inclusion that places those least privileged at the forefront.”  Beyond Self-Interest: Asian Pacific Americans toward a Community of Justice, 1996


Patrick Chen is a fifth-year informatics major. He can be reached at