Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California affirmative action measure draws Asian American opposition

Although Democrats won “supermajorities” in both legislative houses in 2012, the voting blocs have only rarely been employed.

One of the very few times was on Jan. 30, when the Senate voted 27-9 along party lines for Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, which would partially repeal Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot measure that prohibits using race or gender in government employment, contracting and education.

Aimed at “affirmative action,” it’s one of history’s most controversial ballot measures and spawned drives in other states.

SCA 5, carried by Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, would remove education from Proposition 209’s provisions, thereby authorizing higher education to reintroduce affirmative action in student admissions.

The Senate’s action sent the issue to the Assembly, which has 55 Democratic members, one more than theoretically required to place SCA 5 on the November ballot.

However, “theoretically” may be the operative word, because Asian rights groups are ginning up opposition, worried that restoration of affirmative action could slash admissions of Asian American students.

They are especially overrepresented, numerically, in the University of California, which has relatively low numbers of Latino and black students. There’s much less disparity in the California State University system.

Asian Americans constitute about a third of UC students, nearly three times their proportion of California’s population, and are about twice as numerous as Latinos, even though the latter have become California’s largest ethnic group at nearly 40 percent.

Hernandez argues, “there has been a precipitous drop in the percentage of Latino, African American and Native American students at California public universities ... campuses becoming less diverse and qualified high school graduates being overlooked and ignored under Proposition 209.”

Critics of the measure argue that Latino and black admissions have been rising, not falling, and that the reintroduction of affirmative action would be racial discrimination.

Last week, Asian rights groups staged a rally in Southern California to generate opposition, particularly among Asian American politicians in the Legislature, and appear to be gaining traction.

Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Monterey Park, is publicly opposing SCA 5 and the Assembly’s other Asian American members are being pressed to follow suit.

It wouldn’t take much to sink it. There are just 55 Democrats in the Assembly. If two turn against SCA 5, it won’t pass, given solid Republican opposition.

Moreover, it would be difficult to make any amendments to mollify opponents because they would have to be approved by the Senate. With two Democratic senators now on leave of absence due to criminal charges, the upper house’s supermajority is in suspension.