The Agenda

Asian Americans and California’s New Battle Over Racial Preferences

Something very unusual is happening in California. As Katy Murphy and Jessica Calefati report in the San Jose Mercury News, a new legislative effort to revisit California’s ban on the use of racial preferences in admissions to selective public universities (a ban that has been undermined in recent years, as Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. recount in Mismatch) has met with new resistance from an unexpected quarter. The partisan composition of the California State Legislature is notably lopsided. The California Senate has 28 Democratic members, 11 Republicans, and 1 vacancy. The California State Assembly has 55 Democrats and 25 Republicans. And so the most interesting and consequential debates in the state are not those between Democrats and Republicans, but rather those that divide Democrats. In January, the state Senate passed legislation that would allow for a new statewide referendum on racial preferences, which was backed by all Democratic members. Yet now, as the bill is about to make its way to the Assembly, three Democratic state senators seem to have had a change of heart:

Over the last several weeks, the three senators who have had second thoughts about the referendum — Leland Yee, D-San Francisco; Ted Lieu, D-Torrance; and Carol Liu, D- La Cañada/Flintridge — said they have received thousands of calls and emails from fearful constituents who believe that any move to favor other ethnic groups could hurt Asian-Americans, who attend many of the state’s best schools in large numbers. A petition to kill the referendum now has more than 100,000 signatures, and email listservs for Chinese-American parents have been flooded with angry posts.

Three days ago, the senators sent a formal letter to Assembly Speaker John Perez urging him to stop the bill from advancing any further. “As lifelong advocates for the Asian American and other communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children,” the letter states.

Left-liberals in the state claim that opponents of preferences are misleading the public by claiming that the restoration of preferences will mean formal quotas, and that Asian American students won’t gain admission to elite public universities; but of course this is a misleading way to frame the issue. It seems entirely plausible that preferences for underrepresented minorities will have a material impact on the representation of overrepresented minorities at selective campuses, and that as a result, marginal students from overrepresented minorities will either attend less-selective public universities in-state, or they will leave the state to pursue higher education options that might prove more expensive. Henry Der, a leading left-liberal Asian American activist, and former head of Chinese for Affirmative Action, affirms the importance of rainbow coalition politics:

Der said any debate that pits ethnic minorities against one another serves no one.

“These Chinese families are not looking at the larger picture. We are not making the investments we need in higher education,” he said. “We need to expand opportunities for all students.”

Politically-engaged Asian Americans in California, and increasingly, nationwide, tend to gravitate to the political left. Across the U.S., 73 percent of Asian Americans, a group that represented 3 percent of the electorate voted for Barack Obama in 2012. In California, Asian Americans represented 11 percent of the electorate that year, and they voted for Obama by an even more overwhelming 79 percent. Yet there is at least some reason to believe that Asian American voters tend to be moderate or centrist Democrats rather than liberal Democrats, as reflected in Asian American support for Hillary Clinton over Obama during the 2008 primary.

To understand California’s political future, and the ongoing debate over preferences, it is important to keep in mind that non-Hispanic whites now represent 39.4 percent of the population while Latinos represent 38.2 percent. Asian Americans and African Americans, for comparison, are 13.9 percent and 6.6 percent of California’s population respectively. The composition of the electorate in 2012 was notably different: non-Hispanic whites represented 55 percent of the electorate while Latino voters represented 22 percent.

For much of modern U.S. history, racial polarization between a relatively privileged non-Hispanic white majority and a black minority disproportionately burdened by multigenerational poverty has shaped political discourse. In California, however, there are twice as many Asian Americans as there are African Americans, and while there remains a black population that lives in concentrated poverty, there is also an affluent segment of the population that is integrated into the state’s governing institutions. Moreover, black political influence is disproportionately large, as African Americans represent a higher share of the electorate (8 percent) than of the population (6.6 percent). The Latino population, meanwhile, has grown considerably, due more to natural increase than migration in recent years, and this population is both relatively poor and relatively politically disengaged, as unauthorized immigrants, lawful permanent residents who have chosen not to become naturalized citizens, and children under 18 are overrepresented. A debate over racial preferences doesn’t simply pit non-Hispanic whites against a historically disenfranchised black population.

One interesting development is that California’s Asian American activist class is facing the fact that their Asian American constituents are not nearly as liberal, or as invested in rainbow coalition politics, as they might have hoped. The Asian Americans who have gained political prominence in the state, like Jean Quan, the Chinese American mayor of Oakland, and the state’s attorney general, Kamala Devi Harris, who is of mixed South Asian and African American parentage, have tended to be on the leftmost edge of the state’s Democratic party. (San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee is a somewhat ambiguous case.) It seems faintly possible that California’s new ethnocultural landscape might lead at least some Asian Americans to shift to the political right. For this to happen, California Republicans would need to do quite a lot to change entrenched perceptions of the party as the party not only of non-Hispanic whites, but of non-Hispanic whites living in the state’s interior, its rural hinterlands, and in southern Orange County. I’ll have more to say about this in the near future. For now, I’ll observe that California would be an excellent testing ground for a conservative human capital agenda aimed at middle-income and not just low-income households.


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