If you have ties to the chinese american community here in California, you have no doubt seen a torrent of chain emails railing against SCA-5 this past 2 weeks. SCA-5 is a state constitutional amendment to overturn Prop 209 and re-instate race-based affirmative action to college admissions. This issue has politicized asian americans like you wouldn't believe, in a way that serves as a cautionary tale to state Democrats.
California voters ended race-based affirmative action via the contentious Prop 209 back in 1996. The effect on black, hispanic and native american enrollment was swift and traumatic. Between 1997 and 1998, the year the proposition took effect, enrollment from those 3 groups at the flagship UC Berkeley dropped from 45% of the incoming class to 20%. On the other side of the coin, asian americans have become even more over-represented. Asian americans make up 40% of the incoming class at UC Berkeley, despite making up only 14% of graduating high school seniors. In the years since the passage of Prop 209 though, California's universities have tempered the impact of Prop 209 somewhat by instituting affirmative action programs that benefit poor students and first generation college students of all races. There is more emphasis on 'holistic' evaluations that take into consideration life circumstances outside of academic achievements. Separately the UC's have been quietly re-engineering their entrance criteria to de-emphasize certain SAT tests which asian students excel at. This last measure in particular was criticized by a number of asians for being an 'affirmative action for whites'. In politics, things that are not zero-sum games are frequently portrayed as zero-sum games. But when it comes to university admissions, it really is a zero sum game. For one group to make gains, another group has to be pared back. There is no way around that, and asian americans, who are vastly over-represented in academia, and vastly under-represented in the politics, find themselves in the pared back group time and again. Until now though, asian americans have not had an assertive voice in the debate. But with the viral anti-SCA-5 campaign, that has changed. Asian americans are finding their own voice instead of being the junior partner/silent partner in the democratic coalition.
SCA-5 itself passed through the state senate on a party-line vote without much fanfare or media coverage at the end of january. But sometime in mid-february, the chinese language radio and newspapers started covering this issue, and it ballooned into a huge grassroot movement that swept up the entire chinese american community. I have lived in California since 1984, and I have never seen the chinese american community this energized over anything. Nor have I seen so many of my previously apolitical aquaintances leaping feet first into a political movement. This is a political awakening for the chinese community. Unfortunately this is a political awakening that threatens to turn asian americans, who voted for Obama by a 73% landslide in 2012, against Democrats. All 3 chinese american state senators, Leland Yee, Ted Lieu and Cindy Liu voted for SCA-5 in the party-line vote back in January. But the backlash has been so fierce that the 3 of them did an about-face last week and asked Sen Hernandez, the originator of the bill, to table the bill pending more discussions. On the assembly side, Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park) has pledged his no vote, and Paul Fong (D-San Jose) is leaning this way as well. With these two no votes, most likely the bill will fail to find the 2/3 majority to go forward. So SCA-5 looks to be dead for the moment. But the lesson should not be lost on Democrats. Asian americans have galvanized around this issue. Any heavy handed attempt to revive race based affirmative action will cause asian americans to storm out of the big tent and undo all the good work that we have done so far in cobbling together our delicate Democratic governing coalition here in California.