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Moving Beyond the Nasty in SCA-5, California’s New Affirmative Action Debate

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

In California, the state senate has proposed a new Democratic-sponsored measure, known as SCA-5, to overturn Prop. 209, the 1996 ballot initiative that prohibited affirmative action and replaced it with colorblind admissions. If the state assembly approves SCA-5 in its next session, the whole thing could go before voters later this year.

The battle lines are already being drawn along party and racial lines, and, true to recent form, the most vocal group against affirmative action seems to be Asian Americans, specifically Chinese Americans.

I wish it weren’t so. But it’s fairly typical in the debates that have taken place in the recent past.

Those against affirmative action have long used Chinese Americans as the wedge to break up the solid block of support among minorities and people of color. And that’s despite the fact that a 2012 poll showed that more than three-fourths of Asian Americans nationally support affirmative action.

Yet, the anti-affirmative action sentiment in the new immigrant communities, and in the Chinese ethnic press, is loud and clear. Chinese have benefited from colorblind policies that have boosted admissions by about 3 percent since Prop. 209. Many Chinese Americans now fear losing out to other minorities if affirmative action is reinstated.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what opponents of SCA-5 are hoping to take advantage of.

If we want a different and more productive debate from the standard one that focuses on fear and that polarizes and defies consensus, it’s time for a different way to look at the issue. Don’t see it as some zero-sum “race game,” where there’s always a loser.

If we have a vast applicant pool applying for limited seats at the top universities, what we have isn’t a race issue. We have a “resources” issue.

What if we made all schools “great,” so the difference between campuses is irrelevant?

And then what if we drop the pretense that prestige makes all that much of a difference?

It’s really the individual that makes a difference, isn’t it? Harvard doesn’t hurt. But remember, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard.

In talking with Asian families, prestige seems to be their biggest hang-up. They want the best for their kids, and if they get Riverside instead of Berkeley, which is perceived as the best offering, then it’s seen by the families as a failure.

That may be more of an acculturation issue than anything. But the base problem isn’t really about race.

Once again, it’s about resources.

If educational offerings were equally making prestige less of a factor, we’d be a lot further along in finding real solutions.

Most importantly, we could avoid the non-productive divisive and ugly rhetoric that tends to rear its ugly head in any fight over affirmative action.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (  Like him at or follow him on twitter @emilamok

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