Affirmative action at California colleges: A debate based on fear

The California Legislature is weighing a proposal to exempt state public college and university admissions from the Proposition 209 ban on affirmative action. Above, protesters are seen in San Francisco demonstrating against Proposition 209.
(Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)

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.


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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.

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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.

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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.