Op-Ed
Op-Ed

California needs to look again at Asian stance on affirmative action

Opposition to affirmative action was primarily concentrated among a small group of Asian American activists

Earlier this year, the California legislature tabled a proposed referendum that sought to restore affirmative action in higher education. The measure had sailed through the Senate with a two-thirds vote and was awaiting approval in the Assembly. However, after intense opposition and sustained mobilization by some Asian American voters, particularly by Chinese American voters in Silicon Valley and the Los Angeles suburbs, many Asian American members of the legislature voiced their opposition to the measure, effectively killing it.

The mobilization against the measure, State Constitutional Amendment 5, or SCA-5, caught many elected officials by surprise. Asian American voters had voted against a ballot proposition banning affirmative action in 1996. Previous polls, including one conducted by the National Asian American Survey in 2012, had indicated that the vast majority of Asian Americans in California supported affirmative action. Many of the large nonprofits that serve Asian Americans in the state also had been long-standing advocates of affirmative action.

By contrast, the mobilization on SCA-5 went in the other direction: Most people who signed petitions and called their elected representatives were intensely opposed to the measure. Notably, most of the opposition came from Chinese Americans, and the most prominent targets were Asian American legislators in Sacramento and Washington. Faced with this opposition to SCA-5, most Asian American elected officials withdrew their support, forcing the bill's proponent to table the measure.

Given the way the issue played out, it was understandable that most observers viewed Asian American opposition as crucial to the demise of SCA-5. Beyond the views of activists, however, we did not know where Asian American voters stood on the issue.

Some key, thorny questions remained: Was the opposition to SCA-5 a sign that Asian American voters had shifted en masse in their opinions on affirmative action? Or was this shift primarily among Chinese Americans, while the rest of the Asian American population remained supportive?

Or, perhaps there was an altogether different explanation: that opposition was primarily concentrated among a small group of Asian American activists, with the more numerous silent majority still supportive of affirmative action. And where did whites and other minorities stand on the issue of affirmative action?

The Field Poll's most recent survey of registered voters in California, released this week, helps shed light on some of these questions, and where all Asian Americans, along with whites, Latinos and African Americans stand on affirmative action.

The National Asian American Survey, which I direct, asked the Field organization to include in its poll the same question we had in our 2012 survey to see if opinion had shifted: "Do you favor or oppose affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education?" [Disclosure: The survey provided financial support to this Field Poll to increase its sample of Asian American respondents.] This question was modeled on prior questions asked by polling organizations such as the Pew Research Center and reflected the state of affirmative action in California before its repeal by Proposition 209 in 1996.

The Field Poll results indicate a slight erosion in support for affirmative action among Asian American registered voters. In 2012, 80% were in favor of affirmative action; in 2014, 69% were in favor. However, this still means that about 2 in every 3 Asian American registered voters in California support affirmative action. Even among Chinese Americans, where opposition to SCA-5 seemed to be the strongest, the Field Poll data indicate that 60% support affirmative action. And the figure for those who oppose it has remained steady at 13% from 2012 to 2014, while the proportion who are uncertain on the issue has risen, from 6% in 2012 to 18% today.

These findings point to the likelihood that the opposition to SCA-5 was probably the result of selective mobilization among those Asian American voters opposed to the measure, rather than a sign of drastically shifting opinion among Asian American voters against affirmative action. Looking beyond Asian Americans, the most recent Field Poll also indicates majority support for affirmative action across racial groups, including among whites (57%), Latinos (81%) and African Americans (83%).

There are a few important lessons here. First, it is vital to have timely opinion surveys in California that include Asian Americans, especially on legislation that might affect them in a significant way. In this instance, such data would have produced a more informed debate and might even have meant an amended SCA-5 to be placed before voters. More opinion surveys of Asian Americans also means having a more accurate picture of California, as the group is rapidly growing and already accounts for about 10% of voters and 15% of residents. Having access to timely public opinion from different racial groups in California is no longer a luxury, but a vital necessity as the state continues to diversify.

Karthick Ramakrishnan is a professor of public policy and political science at UC Riverside.

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