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There has been no shortage, on this board, of commentary on the demographic wave in favor of Democrats, or of gloating over the hole the Republicans find themselves in. As we know, Romney lost majorities of women, Blacks, Latinos, gays, Asians etc., sometimes by huge margins.  The Democratic coalition is inexorably growing, we say, with Presidential elections fore-ordained to go Blue.

We also make a lot of fun of the Republicans for their fratricidal tendencies, exemplified by the Tea Party's quest to "primary" members of their own party.  Ha ha, look at their circular firing squad!  So it comes as a shocking and depressing development that the Democrats in Sacramento are in the process of throwing an important piece of their coalition under the bus.  

California SCA5, masquerading as a restoration of progressive "affirmative action" policies, will take thousands of places in the University of California system away from ethnic Asian kids, and give them back to whites, who have been losing ground since 1996, when Prop 209 did away with race-based quotas.  (More data in follow up posts...) The fact that a few of these seats might go to Black and Latino students has been enough to persuade the mainstream Democratic party establishment to sponsor and back this bill.

The Republicans could not have found a more potent wedge issue to begin slicing away at the Democratic coalition.  Yet it is the Democrats who are doing this to themselves.  Shame on them for being so shortsighted.

More below the orange fortune cookie...

To understand what is going on, we have to revisit Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action measure passed in 1996. Prop 209 was a blatantly racist bill, prompted by the ire of a few white families who were convinced their kids had been cheated out of places in the UC system to make way for undeserving black kids.  The campaign made use of all the race-baiting dog-whistles we have come to associate with today's regressive, tea-fueled vendettas on poor people, immigrants etc.  And it worked.

After Prop 209 passed, there was, as predicted, a drop in Black and Latino enrollment in UC system schools, as well as in many other parts of state's public education system.  However, the jump in white enrollment that some hoped for, did not materialize. Instead, those places went mainly to the children of Asian immigrants.  The trend accelerated over the ensuing years:  white enrollment has been sliding, while Asian enrollment has been climbing.  

Meanwhile, Black and Latino enrollment has not only been holding steady, it has in fact actually been climbing.  It is not yet back to pre-209 levels, but the gap is closing.  Why?  California, like several other states, adopted holistic, socioeconomic alternatives to race-based affirmative action--for example, if you are in the top 9% of your high-school graduating class, no matter where you go to school, you are guaranteed a seat in the UC system.  This provides an automatic floor, ensuring that minority kids from horrendously underprivileged neighborhoods can still get into UC if they are motivated and talented enough to outperform other kids from the same background.  

None of us deny that more needs to be done.  The President has placed a marker on the ground regarding preschool and early-childcare programs.  We need to restore the funding for our gutted public education system after decades of attack from right wing groups.  We need to reinforce our tier-two universities and community colleges, for the vast majority of students of all ethnic groups who don't attend the elite universities.  

What we don't need to do is to pass a regressive bill that would punish the one group that has managed to succeed despite whatever headwinds they faced.  The upshot is that in a system without reliance on specific targets or quotas, Asian kids have outperformed, and California is on the brink of kicking them in the teeth for it.  What is worst about this is that it is being done by Democrats, to a minority group that has never asked for special treatment and has historically been discriminated against.

From a recent Boston Globe article on racial quotas in higher education:

"A few years ago, however, when I worked as a reader for Yale’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, it became immediately clear to me that Asians - who constitute 5 percent of the US population - faced an uphill slog. They tended to get excellent scores, take advantage of AP offerings, and shine in extracurricular activities. Frequently, they also had hard-knock stories: families that had immigrated to America under difficult circumstances, parents working as kitchen assistants and store clerks, and households in which no English was spoken.

But would Yale be willing to make 50 percent of its freshman class Asian? Probably not.

Indeed, as Princeton’s Nieli suggests, most elite universities appear determined to keep their Asian-American totals in a narrow range. Yale’s class of 2013 is 15.5 percent Asian-American, compared with 16.1 percent at Dartmouth, 19.1 percent at Harvard, and 17.6 percent at Princeton.

“There are a lot of poor Asians, immigrant kids,’’ says University of Oregon physics professor Stephen Hsu, who has written about the admissions process. “But generally that story doesn’t do as much as it would for a non-Asian student. Statistically, it’s true that Asians generally have to get higher scores than others to get in.’’

In a country built on individual liberty and promise, that feels deeply unfair. If a teenager spends much time studying, excels at an instrument or sport, and garners wonderful teacher recommendations, should he be punished for being part of a high-achieving group? Are his accomplishments diminished by the fact that people he has never met - but who look somewhat like him - also work hard?

“When you look at the private Ivy Leagues, some of them are looking at Asian-American applicants with a different eye than they are white applicants,’’ says Oiyan Poon, the 2007 president of the University of California Students Association. “I do strongly believe in diversity, but I don’t agree with increasing white numbers over historically oppressed populations like Asian-Americans, a group that has been denied civil rights and property rights.’’

What makes SCA5 so depressing is that it is wrong on every count:

1.  It punishes a group that has never had any special privileges, and only seeks to pull itself up by the one means available to it:  education.  That makes it immoral.

2.  It sends the wrong message to other minorities.  If the Black community turns things around and begins to outperform, will it suddenly find itself subject to targeted attempts to claw back its progress?  

3.  It validates the old conservative canard that liberals just hate successful people.  I was always offended when I heard that.  Now I wonder.

4.  This is false progressivism.  The main beneficiaries will be white racists who thought they won with Prop 209, came to regret it, and now want a "do-over".

5.  There is absolutely nothing for the Democrats to gain from this.   It will appease Black and Latino political groups too stupid to see through the subterfuge.  In neither case is it going to change the way anyone votes.

6.  Finally, the Democrats risk amputating an entire ethnic constituency, one which is an important and growing part of the progressive coalition.  I have already heard from many Asian friends who voted Democratic in the last few elections that they have never felt so betrayed, and will never vote for another Democrat if this passes.  

It is not too late for the Democrats to change course.  The bill passed the California state senate.  It must still get through the Assembly, and then would be put up for a public vote in November.  The great danger, if you care about partisan calculus, is that it will set Asians against other people of color in California. With super-majorities in both houses, the Democrats will own this thing if it gets to that stage.   The Republicans will be drooling.

(Stay tuned for more posts with historical data and further references.)

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