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Lloyd Billingsley
Too Many Nguyens?
Identity politics saves California’s Proposition 209—for now.
March 28, 2014

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a ballot initiative prohibiting the use of racial preferences in college admissions, state employment, and state contracting. Repealing it has been at the top of the Left’s wish list ever since. Current conditions would seem to favor the law’s undoing: Democrats control the state legislature, all of the state’s constitutional offices, and the University of California Board of Regents. Yet something unexpected happened on March 17. Assembly Speaker John Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat, returned Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA) 5 to the senate without a vote. The amendment would have given voters the chance in November to restore racial preferences in state university admissions. But, Pérez explained, “as it’s currently written [SCA 5] requires a two-thirds vote of both houses, and those votes don’t exist in both houses.”

The measure’s sponsor, West Covina Democrat Ed Hernandez, claimed that it would “ensure that universities reflect the diversity of the state,” arguing that Proposition 209 caused “a precipitous drop in the percentage of Latino, African American, and Native American students at California public universities.” Hernandez didn’t mention Asian Americans, but it was a coalition of Asian activist groups that loudly and successfully stopped SCA 5.

In January, Hernandez’s amendment easily passed the state senate on a party line vote. Three “yeas” came from Asian-American senators Ted Lieu, Carol Liu, and Leland Yee. Very soon, however, the senators began hearing from their constituents in Torrance, Glendale, San Francisco, and elsewhere. Thousands of calls and e-mails poured into their offices. A petition urging assembly members to reject SCA 5 garnered more than 110,000 signatures in just a few weeks. Eventually, Lieu, Liu, and Yee cosigned a letter asking Pérez to withdraw the measure. “As lifelong advocates for the Asian American and other communities,” they wrote, “we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children.” The senators came to see what their constituents recognized at once: the preferences that SCA 5 seeks to restore would result in negative quotas for Asians.

University of California officials have long thought that the student body should reflect the racial and ethnic proportions of the population. UC Davis, for example, twice rejected Allan Bakke—a white man—for medical school, even though his academic qualifications exceeded those of minority students admitted under a “special admissions program” which reserved places for members of minority groups and “economically and/or educationally disadvantaged” applicants. In 1978, Bakke sued the university and won. UC Davis appealed the verdict all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that, though the university could take race into account when making admissions decisions, it could not reserve a specific number of seats for applicants from certain minority groups.

Asians suffered decades of official discrimination in California. Since their arrival in the mid-nineteenth century, the Chinese experienced racism and exclusion in the form of the Federal Immigration Act of 1924 and California’s Anti-Coolie Act of 1862. During World War II, the government interned American citizens of Japanese descent in what were essentially concentration camps. Like Bakke, many Asian Americans found their applications to California’s public colleges and universities rejected, despite having academic qualifications superior to those of applicants from other minority groups who did gain admission. Proposition 209 did not do away with racial and economic admissions preferences entirely—university admissions officers could continue to consider those factors when making decisions. Only racial or ethnic preferences imposed by politicians and university officials were prohibited. Nevertheless, UC brass maintains that Proposition 209 “harms diversity.”

The trouble for supporters of SCA 5 is that—without preferences—Asians are overrepresented in California’s public universities relative to the population. According to Census figures, Asians—a diverse group that includes Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Cambodians, Indians, Filipinos, Malaysians, and more—make up 14 percent of the state population. But at some University of California campuses, Asians simply dominate the landscape: nearly 52 percent of undergraduates at UC Irvine; about 50 percent at UC San Diego; 43 percent at UC Berkeley; and around 40 percent at UCLA. As one wag at the San Diego Reader put it, parodying Dr. Seuss, there are just “too many Nguyens.”

Yet, as Thomas Sowell noted in his 2013 book Intellectuals and Race, declines in minority enrollment at UCLA and Berkeley have been offset by increases at other UC campuses. More important, the number of African-American and Hispanic students graduating from the UC system has gone up, including a 55 percent increase in those graduating in four years with a GPA of 3.5 or higher. After the ban on preferences took effect, blacks and Hispanics with degrees in science, technology, math, and engineering rose 51 percent, and the number of doctorates earned by such students rose 25 percent.

Pérez and state senate leader Darrell Steinberg are reportedly forming a task force to revisit the university admissions issue. It would be better if Californians had an opportunity to vote on what Hernandez, Pérez, and their colleagues really have in mind. Here’s an idea: Simply drop the word “not” from the original language of Proposition 209—“The state of California shall discriminate . . . on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin”—and put that on the 2016 ballot. Then let California voters express their preference.

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