San Jose Mercury News
A bill that would have let California voters reconsider the state’s 16-year-old ban on race-conscious college admissions is off the table, its author announced on Monday.
Constitutional Amendment 5 passed the state Senate in late January on a party-line vote but ran into an unexpected wave of resistance — mostly, from Asian-Americans concerned that affirmative action policies would unfairly disadvantage Asian applicants to the intensely competitive University of California system.
A Change.org petition to stop the referendum had more than 112,000 signatures on Monday.
After an about-face by three Asian-American senators who voted for the bill in January, Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, is putting the bill on hold — and making no promises about its revival.
“I’d like to bring it back,” Hernandez said. “I believe in it. I believe we need to make sure there’s equal opportunity for everyone in the state of California.”
Last week, saying they had received thousands of calls and emails from constituents, Senators Leland Yee, D-San Francisco; Ted Lieu, D-Torrance; and Carol Liu, D-La Cañada/Flintridge asked Assembly Speaker John Perez 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,” they wrote in a letter to Perez.
In 1996, California became the first state to outlaw affirmative action in public university admissions and state hiring, a policy that took effect in 1998. The amendment would have allowed voters to lift that ban, either this fall or in 2016.
Hernandez and others have said that misinformation about what affirmative action would mean — such as racial quotas for new freshmen — spread quickly, stoking parents’ fears about their children’s chances getting into UC, the state’s public research university system.
Asian-Americans make up about 38 percent of UC undergraduates and have a high rate of freshman admission to its nine undergraduate campuses — 73 percent in 2013, compared to 63 percent of all in-state applicants.
The use of racial quotas in admissions would be unconstitutional; recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have held that any consideration of race in public university admissions must be narrowly justified. UC officials say they didn’t use them before the affirmative action ban.
Still, some Chinese-language news outlets reported such erroneous assertions, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political-science professor at UC Riverside who directs the National Asian-American Survey.
“I think there’s a lot of anxiety and fear, and when you have bad information it’s hard to address some of those concerns,” he said.
Some in the Asian-American community, which has historically supported affirmative action policies, still believe race should be considered in college admissions. Today, although some Asian groups — including the Southeast Asian Resource and Action Center and Filipino Advocates for Justice in Union City and Oakland — have pushed for the use of race, the scarcity of seats in UC has provoked intense opposition among others.
Republicans have tried to seize on the divide. The top GOP leaders of both chambers spoke at “Stop SCA 5” forum Sunday in Cupertino, sponsored by the San Francisco-based Chinese-American Institute for Empowerment.
Now that the Democrats have backed away from the bill, “I don’t know that it’s going to change the way that Asian-Americans feel about the two political parties,” said Melissa Michelson, who teaches California politics and political science at Menlo College in Atherton.
But, Michelson said, the rise and fall of Constitutional Amendment 5 revealed the growing political power of the state’s Asian-American voters — and she doesn’t expect state lawmakers to bring the bill back.
“I don’t think they’re going to,” she said, “because what they found is trying to undo the ban on affirmative action makes bad things happen.”
Reporter Jessica Calefati contributed to this story. Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.