Reading Los Angeles: Join The Times' new book club
Opinion Op-Ed

Affirmative action at California colleges: A debate based on fear

Is the debate on affirmative action versus race-blind policies mainly about principle, or mostly about preserving narrow group interests? We are beginning to find out in California. A bill passed by the state Senate and pending in the Assembly would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would overturn portions of Proposition 209 to exempt public college and university admissions from the ban on racial, ethnic and gender preferences.

There are principled reasons to support as well as to oppose affirmative action in higher education. Supporters tend to invoke the importance of having diverse perspectives and backgrounds in educational settings, for advantaged and disadvantaged groups alike. Opponents argue for equal treatment in how rules are applied across racial groups. Both arguments, in different ways, speak to core American values.

However, in addition to principled debates, we are also seeing reactions that are more clearly motivated by group fears about potentially losing admission seats, in particular at the University of California.

PHOTOS: Is Gov. Jerry Brown saving California or ruining it? The 9 big issues 

Interestingly, many of these fears are emanating not from conservative white voters but from a few vocal Asian American organizations. National advocacy groups such as the 80-20 Political Action Committee, editorial writers in Chinese-language newspapers and activists from Chinese-language schools have begun to bombard Assembly members, urging them to vote against restoring affirmative action. They worry that Asian American students, who saw a sizable increase in UC enrollment following 209's ban on affirmative action in 1996, will see a big drop in enrollment if affirmative action is restored.

At the same time, most Asian American civil rights and community service organizations maintain that affirmative action is an important way to ensure equity and diversity in higher education, including among disadvantaged Pacific Islanders and Asian groups such as Cambodians and Laotians. Furthermore, most Asian American voters also favor affirmative action programs. In 1996, they opposed the ban on affirmative action by 61% to 39%, and data from the 2012 National Asian American Survey indicate continued strong support for affirmative action.

However, we might find a different set of racial dynamics in California today with the proposed state constitutional amendment to restore affirmative action.

PHOTOS: 5 Senate women to watch in 2014

First, using neutral survey language to ask voters about their hypothetical support for affirmative action is far different from gauging voter opinion after an intense issue campaign. If Asian-language newspapers and Chinese-language schools inject themselves more fully into the debate and stoke fears of losing admission seats, we may indeed see a significant shift in Asian American opinion. And these opinions will matter more now because the Asian American share of the California electorate has doubled since 1996 to 10%, potentially constituting the margin of victory or defeat.

Just as important, the focus on narrow group interests might also change the opinions of white voters in California in surprising ways.

When whites voted overwhelmingly against affirmative action in 1996, the UC admission rates for whites and Asian Americans were roughly equal, at 83% and 84%, respectively. Today, under the ban on affirmative action, the admission rate for whites is 65%, compared with 73% for Asian Americans.

PHOTOS: Seven foods, genetically engineered

These gaps may become relevant to the attitudes of white voters confronted with a new choice on affirmative action. Experimental studies of white voter opinion show that support for merit-based university admissions drops significantly when respondents are provided information about the high success rate of Asian Americans.

If the primary consideration in voters' minds is the potential loss or gain for their own racial group, we may indeed see a reversal in voting patterns of whites and Asian Americans on affirmative action. This is particularly true if group fears are based on the kinds of erroneous or exaggerated claims we are already seeing.

For example, some ethnic media stories claim that affirmative action would cap Asian American admissions to their share of the resident population. Not only has this kind of quota been ruled unconstitutional since 1978; such fears also ignore the fact that the Asian American share of UC students was about three times their state population share in 1995, when affirmative action was last in place.

Instead of deciding based on misinformation or fear, and worrying about narrow group interests, we can have a more principled conversation about whether a racially diverse college-educated population is important for a stable and equitable California. Proponents of affirmative action will also need to make a much stronger case for why existing programs to ensure diversity are insufficient, including one that admits the top 9% of students from most high schools in the state.

Such principled arguments hold the promise not only to elevate the debate among California voters but also to ensure its constitutionality in the eyes of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Karthick Ramakrishnan is an associate professor of political science at UC Riverside and has published four books on immigration, race and politics.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Exactly what California needs: A new, science-focused UC school
    Exactly what California needs: A new, science-focused UC school

    Thousands of applicants with high school grade-point averages above 4.0 are rejected from UC Berkeley and UCLA each year through no fault of their own. It's a hard thing for parents to explain to their kids, who did everything they were supposed to do and yet were turned away thanks to the lack...

  • UC racket: Administrators get huge raises while students drown in debt
    UC racket: Administrators get huge raises while students drown in debt

    It may just be political posturing, but the willingness of the University of California regents to even float the idea of a big tuition increase at a time like this is galling even by the standards of, well, politics.

  • Parents don't owe their kids a college education

    It’s hard for parents to win these days. First they’re criticized for being helicopter parents who won’t let go of their children once their offspring reach adulthood. Now, at least in New Jersey, they can’t let go: They’re on the hook to pay for their children’s college education.

  • Budget-cutter Gov. Brown could do more to restore UC's health
    Budget-cutter Gov. Brown could do more to restore UC's health

    For all that he's a regent of the University of California, Gov. Jerry Brown is not an expert on academia or modern trends in higher education. What he brings to the deliberations over UC's budget isn't the perspective of a visionary seeking to maintain and build on the university's greatness,...

  • The toughest fight on campus might be against grade inflation
    The toughest fight on campus might be against grade inflation

    A years-long effort at Wellesley College to turn back the tide of grade inflation shows how tough it is. An article in the latest issue of the alumnae magazine shows that as much as everyone knows those straight-A grades don’t mean nearly what they used to, students’ reactions are understandably...

  • UC's Muslim student regent tackles Bill Maher, tuition and more
    UC's Muslim student regent tackles Bill Maher, tuition and more

    There are 26 people on the UC Board of Regents, the august body that sits atop the University of California system. Of those, 18 are appointed to 12-year terms by a governor. One is the governor. And only one is a student. Right now that's Sadia Saifuddin, a California-born senior majoring in social...