Opinion

Asian Americans would lose out under affirmative action

Asian-Americans, the ethnic group most hurt by affirmative action, rightly oppose race-conscious admissions

A recent Field Poll claimed that most registered voters and Asian Americans in California support affirmative action. Based on the poll data, Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science at UC Riverside, indicated that the intense opposition to State Constitutional Amendment 5 (or SCA-5) earlier this year, an attempt to restore affirmative action in California's public universities, "was primarily concentrated among a small group of Asian American activists, with the more numerous silent majority still supportive of affirmative action."

As an official with the Silicon Valley Chinese Assn., which was a major force behind SCA-5's defeat, I find the poll question misleading and Ramakrishnan's reasoning deeply flawed.

The original text of the poll question, written by a group Ramakrishnan directs, was, "Do you favor or oppose affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better jobs and education?" Who would not answer "yes" to such a noble goal? But, as noted in the New York Times, responses to affirmative action polls differ widely based on question wording. In a more relevant poll conducted by Gallup, 67% of respondents rejected the consideration of race in college admissions. 

One major flaw of Ramakrishnan's question is that it mixed several topics. The anti-SCA-5 movement exclusively focused on racial preference and discrimination in college admissions, which SCA-5 would have reintroduced. In contrast, the Field Poll included employment, where the situation is vastly different from college admission and where Asian Americans often face discrimination and are underrepresented, especially in management and executive levels. In addition, the poll mentioned gender, which was not an issue in the anti-SCA-5 movement.

Another big question is whether Asian Americans are, for polling purposes, regarded as "minorities." It is an indisputable fact that Asian Americans are hurt most by race-based affirmative action in college admissions, and yet the question implies that Asians are beneficiaries by using the words "other minorities." This possibly confused poll respondents and affected the results.

Last, but not least, it's highly questionable that affirmative action helps blacks and other minorities, which the poll takes as given. There is a famous book written by UCLA law professor Richard Sander and journalist Stuart Taylor, and the title says it all: "Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It."

Given all this, a more accurate poll question would be: "Do you favor or oppose race-based affirmative action programs with the intention to help blacks and some other minorities (excluding Asians) to get better education, at the expenses of whites and particularly Asians, who have been historically discriminated against? (Please note that according to some studies, these affirmative action programs may actually hurt students they are intended to help.)"

I would be very interested to know the result.

My grass-roots organization gained firsthand knowledge of Asian Americans' stance on this issue when we united with other organizations to defeat SCA-5 in March. Within a few weeks, our online petition at change.org collected more than 100,000 signatures, most of which came from Californians of all ethnicities but particularly from Asian Americans. Thousands of phone calls and letters flooded state lawmakers' offices. We launched an online donation call for a then little-known anti-SCA-5 state Senate candidate named Peter Kuo, and in four days donations from Asian Americans across the country totaled more than $60,000.

To be clear, my group supports affirmative action in college admission that benefits socioeconomically disadvantaged students of all races. This practice has been implemented in California's universities since the passage of Proposition 209. And it actually works: With Proposition 209 in effect since 1996, African Americans and Latinos now account for a greater share of the University of California system's overall admissions than when affirmative action was being practiced. In fact, Latinos' numbers now exceed whites' in UC freshman enrollment.

Race-based affirmative action is a complex and emotional issue. It requires a calm, objective and honest discussion. Biased or misleading polls and reports only serve to needlessly drive wedges between different racial and ethnic communities. 

Yunlei Yang is a committee member of the Silicon Valley Chinese Assn.

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