LocationAlhambra , CA
In a community as ethnically diverse as Alhambra, affirmative action is no small topic among residents. A policy that would enable race-conscious decisions in public education, employment and contracting is stirring up controversy once again as Proposition 16 on the Nov. 3 ballot.
After banning affirmative action in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 209, California voters will decide whether to reverse that decision. A “yes” vote would repeal Proposition 209, which currently bans the consideration of “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”
Although Prop. 16 is sweeping in its potential reach and could be used to implement a broad range of affirmative action policies, much of the discussion has focused on how it will affect admissions to selective public colleges, where students of color are most underrepresented, with the exception of some Asian American subgroups.
And for a vocal minority of Chinese Americans, it is the backdrop of a long and bitter fight against policy they believe will harm their representation on these selective campuses.
Prop. 16, put on the ballot by the state Legislature as Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 5, has reignited this decades-long debate on how best to address systemic racism in the midst of a pivotal moment in American history. Advocates view this timing, where conversation about systemic injustice is at a peak, as ripe for adopting concrete solutions.
“This is a great opportunity to look back at that history and say, ‘We got it wrong,’ and correct that,” said José Sanchez, a social science teacher at Alhambra High School. Sanchez has designed and taught a curriculum that looks at Prop. 16 through the lens of Prop. 209.
In his classroom, he discusses the political climate in 1996 when Prop. 209 passed. “It was a very crazy time period where, in California, a lot of politicians, especially Republican politicians, instilled xenophobia and racist views against immigrants and different minority groups,” he said.
After Prop 209 went into effect, Black and Latinx admission rates declined at all schools in the University of California system. At UC Berkeley, where the drop was the most dramatic, Black and Latinx admission rates fell 30 and 36 points respectively between 1994 and 1998.
An analysis by the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, a research team at UCLA, shows that admission rates for AAPI applicants also decreased at all UC campuses except for Riverside between 1994 and 2009, contradicting the notion that Asian Americans benefit from race-blind admissions.
However, college admissions also became more selective over time so declining admission rates could be partially attributed to an increase in the number of applicants.
Prop. 209’s defenders say they fear that repealing this constitutional amendment would lead to “reverse discrimination” and unfairly give preference to underrepresented groups.
Californians for Equal Rights is one of the organizations leading the campaign against Prop. 16. Betty Tom Chu, a Chinese American lawyer and former mayor and council member in Monterey Park, is the group’s honorary co-chair. “I do not believe that the situation now will correct racial injustice because it is using racial injustice to achieve [it],” Chu said in a phone interview.
Kali Fontanilla, a high school teacher in Salinas and speaker for the No On Prop 16 campaign, said she thinks that the state should focus more on K-12 education. “Let’s start from the bottom up instead of from the top down,” she said.
Fontanilla said she has faced more struggles as a Black and Latina woman, but doesn’t agree with “putting the power in the hands of others to discriminate institutionally.”
“It’s the idea that Black and brown students can’t meet the standards,” Fontanilla said.
But others say that Prop. 16 is necessary to combat generations of systemic racism ingrained in American institutions.
“We have to recognize … that there are also race-based biases and race-based injustices that we have to address by acknowledging race,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Saenz, who grew up and lives in Alhambra, said he believes affirmative action would level the playing field for the majority of the Latinx and Asian-American communities. Latinx students are underrepresented at seven of the nine UC campuses. And, while Asian Americans as a whole have a high level of educational attainment, some Southeast Asian groups such as Cambodians and Laotians fall below average in having a bachelor’s degree.
While Saenz said he understands the concerns surrounding the issue, he wanted to remind people that “Proposition 16 does not implement anything … all that Proposition 16 does is repeal a ban.”
An analysis by research and advocacy group The Education Trust-West found that as a constitutional amendment Prop. 209 hampered California community colleges, an essential element of the state’s three-tiered higher education system, from addressing racial disparities through targeted programs. Experts believe these programs can be reinstated if Prop. 16 passes.
“It’s about looking at and rooting out discriminatory barriers and only considering race as a last resort…. It’s what the Supreme Court requires and what California would have to comply with,” Saenz said.
For decades, the Supreme Court has restricted how race can be used in affirmative action for university admissions. In 2016, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that race can only be a “factor of a factor of a factor” and “does not operate as a mechanical plus factor for underrepresented groups.”
But how exactly affirmative action would be carried out in California remains a point of contention and confusion for some. Although California is one of only nine states in the U.S. that ban affirmative action, some people harbor a deep mistrust of the admissions system to the state’s public universities.
“You don’t know the decisions they’re going to make,” Fontanilla said. “[The proponents of Prop. 16] are completely striking the language from our constitution, so there’s a lot of liberties that you can take with that.”
Surveys published this year by AAPI Data, a research group at UC Riverside, show that a majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action and are more likely to support Prop. 16 than oppose it although more than a third are undecided.
The same poll reflects an equal amount of support and opposition for Prop. 16 among Latinx. However, a separate poll from Latino Community Foundation shows 65% support among Latinx who “understood the measure and its intents.”
But despite the high-profile backing from Governor Gavin Newsom, University of California, California Community Colleges, California State University and California Teachers Association, Prop. 16 is trailing in the polls. Overall, between 31-33% support the proposition, while 41-47% oppose, with the rest marked as “undecided.”
Some Chinese Americans who fear that their high representation on California’s selective college campuses will wane have traditionally been the most vocal minority group opposing affirmative action.
Joanna Ngo and Alina Wong, both sophomores at Mark Keppel High School, said in interviews they feel they will have to overperform in an already high-stress environment if Prop. 16 is implemented.
“College is always on my mind,” Ngo, who is a Chinese and Vietnamese American, said. “A lot of people just compare themselves, and I don’t think it should be that way. It’s so toxic.”
Both students said they have tried to research the two sides of the issue. “I totally see that their intention is to aim for equality, and I’m definitely for that,” Wong said, “but I don’t think the ends justify the means.”
WeChat, a social media platform popular among Chinese immigrants also plays a role in furthering opposition. The research report “WeChatting American Politics: Misinformation, Polarization and Immigrant Chinese Media” analyzes how the platform spreads misinformation around affirmative action among other social issues.
Chi Zhang, author of the study, says common narratives about Prop. 16 found on WeChat foreshadow racial quotas and a significant reduction in the number of Chinese or Asian students on campus.
“The amount of misinformation definitely far exceeds information on WeChat that is trying to spell out the issue and parse out the issue for people who are genuinely interested and undecided,” Zhang said in an interview.
A majority of Chinese-language media hold negative views on Prop. 16, but in a rare move, Sing Tao Daily, a Hong Kong-based newspaper that also publishes in Los Angeles and San Francisco, joined other publications in endorsing the proposition.
Paul Ong, a UCLA research professor, said that focusing solely on how Prop. 16 may affect Chinese American representation on campuses is a short-term, narrow view of the issue. “The bigger fight is around how we address systemic racism,” Ong said in a phone interview. “I don’t think we could best protect ourselves … without having institutions and a society that’s committed to fairness, and fairness means that we acknowledge people of color are marginalized systematically.”
Although much of the debate has centered on higher education, Ong reminds people that Prop. 16 also affects public contracting and employment where, Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans, face systemic barriers.
Alton Wang, a UCLA Law student and native of the San Gabriel Valley, said he firmly believes this is a moment to show solidarity with other minorities. “Affirmative action is just one step in a larger project that we need to eliminate the barriers to strive for equity for everybody,” he says, “everybody should have access to that, not just some of us.”