Capitol Alert

AM Alert: Racial politics flare over Asian data collection bill

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank and Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar talk about Gov. Jerry Brown's address after he was sworn in to office for the fourth time on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015 at the Capitol.
Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank and Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar talk about Gov. Jerry Brown's address after he was sworn in to office for the fourth time on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015 at the Capitol.

Adding a few boxes to state forms may seem like a fairly innocuous move. But a bill expanding data collection about Asian sub-groups has spurred another round in the ethnically-charged politics that helped scuttle a recent attempt to repeal affirmative action.

A little background: in 2014, an effort to repeal a ban on race-based college admissions fell apart after fracturing along ethnic lines. While many Latino and African-American lawmakers supported Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, Asian-American legislators felt a backlash from constituents concerned about their kids being squeezed out of top universities. Some of the most vocal opposition emanated from Chinese-Americans.

Now a similar dynamic appears to be playing out. Assembly Bill 1726 would have the Department of Public Health, the California State University and the University of California go deeper than “Asian” when collecting demographic data and begin asking about subgroups like Malaysian, Hmong and Fijian. Better data can lead to more targeted assistance, argues Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, whose office points to examples like a Santa Clara County campaign focused on high Hepatitis B rates in the Chinese and Vietnamese communities or a UCLA program aimed at struggling Pacific Islander students. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill last year, worrying about “the ever growing desire to stratify.”

Plenty of Asian-American groups support the new version. Its sponsors include the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum. But opponents, including Chinese-American groups from around the state, see a more nefarious effort to roll back California’s affirmative action ban. The rhetoric has turned dark, with critics of the bill warning ominously of data collection that preceded the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment. Opponents like the Silicon Valley Chinese Association will rally against the bill on the west steps starting at 11:15 a.m. along with Sens. Bob Huff and Jean Fuller and Assemblymembers Travis Allen, Catharine Baker and Kristin Olsen.

“They see AB 1726 as a backdoor to try and overturn Proposition 209,” said Mei Mei Huff, who is an unpaid liaison to the Chinese community for Huff, her husband.“Asians, especially Chinese, are more politically aware after 2014 and the last fight over SCA 5.”

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Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert