A giant awakens
Asian-American groups mobilize against ‘surprise’ move to restore racial preferences in education
A proposed constitutional amendment that would allow racial preferences at state-run universities has caused people to rise up against the proposal and local politicians who voted for the measure to rethink their support.
Last week, some 50 people attended a gathering that crossed political party lines at the San Gabriel Hilton Hotel, where leaders of a number of Asian-American civic groups spoke out against Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, or SCA5, authored by state Sen. Edward Hernandez (D-West Covina).
The measure would reverse provisions regarding education contained in Proposition 209, which were written into the California Constitution after voters approved the ballot measure in 1996. Proposition 209 called for prohibiting racial and gender preferences in state employment, contracting and education.
Hernandez’s bill passed the Senate on Jan. 20 with the vote of state Sen. Carol Liu, (D-La Cañada Flintridge). However, since then the bill has come to be widely opposed among Asian Americans and many news organizations in the Asian-language media, and Liu has had a change of heart.
On March 6, the day before the meeting at the Hilton, Liu and fellow Democratic state Sens. Leland Yee of San Francisco and Ted Lieu of Redondo Beach released a statement calling for Hernandez to hold his bill.
“As lifelong advocates for the Chinese-American and other API [Asian-Pacific Islander] communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children,” reads the joint statement. Yee and Lieu also voted for Hernandez’s amendment.
“Prior to this vote, we heard no opposition to this bill. However, in the past few weeks, we have heard from thousands of people throughout California concerned about SCA5. As a result, we have asked Sen. Hernandez to hold SCA5 until he has an opportunity to meet with affected communities and attempt to build a consensus,” according to the statement.
On Monday, Liu, chair of the Senate Education Committee, told the Pasadena Weekly that, “We will continue to work together” in addressing concerns.
More than anything, Asian-American groups oppose the amendment because people believe it would allow their children to be denied admission to state universities in favor of other minority students who do not score as well on tests or earn the same high grades.
If SCA5 were enacted, the most important change to the Constitution would be made to Section 31, subsection f, of Article I, which currently states: “For the purposes of this section, ‘State’ shall include, but necessarily be limited to, the State itself, and city, county, city and county, public university system, including the University of California, community college district, school district, special district or any other political subdivision or governmental instrumentality of or within the state.”
In the amended version, excluded from that subsection are the lines “public university system, including the University of California, community college district, school district” and included are the words “State’ does not include the Public School System.”
SCA5 now awaits a vote by the Assembly. If approved, SCA5 will be presented to voters on Nov. 4. If assembly members do not vote on SCA5 before July, the measure would be pushed into the next two-year legislative cycle and could not go before voters until 2016.
Soon after the amendment passed in the Senate, it started receiving coverage — not in the local mainstream media, but mostly in Chinese-language newspapers and television stations. Thirty separate groups currently oppose the amendment, including the American Civil Rights Coalition and the Chinese Alliance for Equality. In addition, nearly 100,000 people have signed a Change.org petition asking the assembly to vote against SCA5 if it makes it that far. In an earlier petition, 80,000 people asked California senators to vote against the amendment.
More than 500 Chinese Americans gathered in front of Democratic Assemblyman Ed Chau’s office in Monterey Park on Feb. 28 to protest SCA5, according to the Global Times.
“We feel like it is racial discrimination,” Joint Chinese University Alumni Association of Southern California President Olivia Liao said during a break at the event at the Hilton last Friday. “They particularly highlight higher education. They are trying to deprive fair opportunities for everyone to enter into higher education.”
Longtime community activist Marina Tse said many in the Chinese-American community were unaware of what was going on in Sacramento.
“SCA5 allows colleges and universities to discriminate based on race,” said Tse, a former assistant deputy secretary with the US Department of Education. Tse also served as a member of the California State Board of Education in the late 1990s.
“This comes as a surprise. The community didn’t have the chance to learn more about it before it was passed by the Senate. SCA5 potentially has the ability to discriminate against individuals who want to enter the US system and state universities. Why are our California legislators trying to pull us backward? SCA5 will pit one race against another. It’s scary.”
Liao is calling on Asian Americans to be prepared to vote in November, although she says her group plans to pressure local assembly members to vote against the amendment.
“Our intent is to try and kill it in the Assembly,” Liao said. “At the same time, we want to raise the awareness of Asian Americans. We have a lower voter percentage and everyone needs to be aware of what is happening right here and how the issues at the polls are going to impact our lives.”
Hernandez has not responded to the request for reconsideration, and his field representative did not return phone calls for comment by the Weekly.
Hernandez has previously claimed that not everyone has a fair opportunity at getting into the state’s 23 Cal State and 10 UC schools. He cites a “precipitous drop in the percentage of Latino, African American, and Native American students at California public universities, despite the fact that those same groups have seen steady increases in their percentages of college-eligible high school graduates.”
Hernandez’s contention is partially at odds with enrollment and admissions figures provided by Cal State and the University of California.
According to those numbers, Latino enrollment at UC schools increased from 13.4 percent since the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996 to 20.7 percent in 2012. Native American enrollment figures were not kept by UC in 1996. Enrollment by those students who identify as Native American numbers 14. African-American enrollment rates were 3.7 percent when Proposition 209 passed and remain at that rate, although they did fall by nearly 1 percent, to 2.8 percent, two years after 209 passed.
The biggest decrease in UC enrollments has been among white students. In 1996, white students made up 38.4 percent of state-run universities. In 2012, they accounted for 26.8 percent. Enrollments by Asian-American students in the state’s UC system have increased from 36 to 39 percent, peaking at 40.8 percent in 2007.
Although minorities have not seen major decreases, Asian Americans are the only group that has a bigger enrollment percentage than its statewide population. According to the 2010 US Census, African Americans make up 7 percent of the state’s population, while Latinos and whites account for 38 percent and 39 percent, respectively. Asian Americans number 5.5 million, or 14.9 percent of the state population.
Hernandez’s case becomes stronger with Cal State. In that system, Native Americans today account for 0.4 percent of enrollments. African-American enrollment plummeted from nearly 16 percent in 1996 to 6.7 percent in 2013. Latino attendance increased from 23.7 percent to 25.4. White students made up about 25 percent of the enrollment, which is roughly the same as in1996, and Asian-American students made up 34.5 percent of the students, a slight increase from 33.6 in 1996.
“Even if these students were not getting into college, SCA5 still would not be a solution to the problem,” Liao said. “We need to look at the reason some of our students can’t get into college and if they are not ready for college, they will fail when they get in. We need to look at how we can improve their education so they can blossom and flourish when they get in there.”