By Thuy Vu

If a state senator has his way, Californians may once again be asked to vote on an emotionally charged issue that has divided people for decades — affirmative action in higher education. State lawmakers are considering SCA5, a proposed constitutional amendment that would give voters a chance to repeal parts of Proposition 209 and restore racial and gender preference in college admissions.

In 1996, voters approved Prop. 209, which prohibits public institutions from granting preferential treatment to any group or individual in hiring, contracting and college admissions. Since then, admission offers to black students have dropped 49 percent at UC Berkeley and 16 percent at UCLA, two flagship campuses in the UC system.

State Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, author of the proposed amendment, spoke with KQED “Newsroom” about why he is seeking to reinstate affirmative action.

“If you look at the master plan for the state of California, it clearly says that our institutions should reflect the diversity of the state. It is not doing that,” Hernandez said. “If we’re going to get prepared for the next century…we have to make sure we have a diverse population, but more importantly, a diverse workforce.”

Hernandez has tried amending Prop. 209 before. When he tried changing the law at the state level, the bills were vetoed by Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This year the overall UC system is roughly 36 percent Asian, 28 percent white, 28 percent Latino and 4 percent African-American.

The current proposal by Hernandez has drawn fierce criticism from opponents of affirmative action, and an online petition is circulating to defeat it. Some of the sharpest comments have come from Asian-Americans who fear that, despite getting good grades, Asian students will be denied spots at California’s top colleges to make room for students of other ethnicities.
“I think the petition they’re signing on to is based on a lot of misinformation,” said Hernandez. “We’ve been getting calls into our office that their kids won’t get in because now there’s going to be quota systems. That’s not true.”

A Personal View

This debate is especially interesting to me because I have personally experienced affirmative action on both sides of the fence. When I applied to UC Berkeley, well before the passage of Prop. 209, I was told by numerous people my Asian race would be a negative since Cal already had “enough Asians.” I was admitted anyway.

When I graduated, my race would once again be a focal point. I was applying for my first professional job, and my ethnicity made me eligible to apply for a “diversity fellowship” at KQED Radio for a one-year reporting stint. Nearly 100 people applied, and I was offered the job.

That was nearly 20 years ago, when there were far fewer Asian-Americans in the media. It was, and still is, a profession that needs to be diverse to effectively serve an increasingly diverse population. My experiences illustrate the complexity of the debate over affirmative action. When does it work? When does it fail? How do we go about creating equal opportunity when the roots of inequality are deep and not necessarily color-blind?

The Senate has already passed the constitutional amendment by Sen. Hernandez. Next steps include whether the Assembly will take it up and where voters stand if it gets to the ballot box.

Thuy Vu is the host of KQED “NEWSROOM,” a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.

Affirmative Action for College Admissions Could Be Headed to State’s Ballot 16 March,2014KQED News Staff

  • Han

    Sen Hernandez has consistently made statements about how the ethnic proportions of the UC campuses should reflect the state.

    Since Asian-Americans make up 14% of the state yet 40% of the UC campuses, how is the Asian community not expected to believe that Senator Hernandez wants quotas? Yes quotas are unconstitutional but as Thuy points out there is an unofficial “bamboo ceiling” when it comes to quotas for Asian-Americans at top colleges. Quotas don’t have to be official policy. Empirical evidence shows a ceiling was put in place for Asians at Berkeley back in the 80s.

    As an Asian-American I’ve never been this engaged in a political issue. If the 5 Asian-Americans in the Assembly enjoy their political careers, they will vote no.

  • batman

    Politicians like Hernandez should be blamed for the failure of Affirmative Action. AA was intended to bridge the gap of historically oppressed, socially backward group with the main stream of a society. The policy is unfortunately manipulated by some politicians to fish for votes from the unqualified majority at the expense of the entire nation.
    Historically, Asians have been persecuted and discriminated – Chinese Americans
    were deprived of citizenship because of the Chinese Exclusion Acts and Japanese Americans were sent to the internment. African Americans were oppressed so profoundly that the majority of the descendants of slavery still remain socioeconomically disadvantaged. And yet this SCA-5 excludes Asians from AA and African Americans now have to portion out the benefits that they earned because the profound oppression of their race. Are politicians like Hernandez too blind to see the facts? Of course not. Using the public resources for their narrow interests is exactly what they are doing. Clearly this round of introducing this ridiculous varietal AA is aiming to reaping the votes from the majority race of California by stealing away the education opportunities from Asian Americans and resources set aside for AA from African Americans.

  • Jimmy
    • Cindy Wu

      AALDEF should look into the scandalous practice behind closed doors at UCLA if they can see past race.

  • Kin White

    Thanks Thuy for sharing your personal experience!

    We all agree that diversity is good for public education system. However the way to achieve it is to help more under-represented kids become eligible and competitive, instead of dragging them in regardless their qualification. Diversity for diversity’s sake is just wrong.

    Secondly, we should help lower-middle class kids, but using race to define the group of kids that need help is just absurd. Should we favor Senator Hernandez’s kids because their skin color, despite the fact that they come from a well-off family? No wonder SCA5 is called the Skin-Color-Act.

    Finally, according to a Gallup poll last year (, while Americans supports AA in general, when it comes down to college admission, two thirds of them believe that race should not be a factor, including 59% of Hispanics. So by advancing S CA5, Senator Hernandez is unnecessarily pitting one minority group against another. This is doing a disservice to the Democratic party, and Republicans will be the only ones to gain from such a debate.

  • Cheney

    It is very selfish and irresponsible that Senator Ed Hernandez used wrong data to propose the bill and trying to fool all nice people. Take a look at following diagrams with solid data sources specified. Hernandez is a liar.
    What he has done is based on two special universities UC Berkeley and UCLA during special period. Even the guest he invited said they are in fact trying to implement quota-based admission in UC/CSU, but they could not do it simply because of prop 209.

  • Cheney

    The UC/CSU enrollment rate on 1996 and 2012-2013 is listed in following table. Prop 209 was implemented in 1996. Is there any need to modify Prop209?
    Asian’s enrollment rate has almost no change basically, from 18.4 to 18.3%, 0.1% lower.

    White’s enrollment rate has changed from 42.4 to 30.3%. But this is not due to prop209. It is because the financial situation of white are generally better than Latino, but UC is still expensive for some white people because they need to pay tuition. 41% of UC/CSU students pay nothing with Pell grant, etc. We all know who they are and who paid for them!
    Latino’s enrollment rate has increased from 16.2 to 33.0%, more than doubled after prop 209 was implemented. The increase is due to the decrease of white.

    The root problem of California education is K-12 stage. We all should spend more effort to enhance the K-12 students performance. Otherwise after students graduate, who cares which race you are? especially on the international competition, does anyone will yield to you because you are certain kind of race?

    Only merit-based admission can improve our competition ability at international stage.

    • botti

      Root problem is likely human biological diversity – eg, different environments and cultures may have favored different distributions of traits over time. There’s no logical reason to anticipate equal distributions across groups, as Professor Weinberg notes in this MIT biology lecture.

  • botti

    This Princeton study shows affirmative action hurts Asian-Americans the most:

    The study, described in an article published in the June issue of Social Science Quarterly, also found that eliminating affirmative action would significantly raise the number of Asian-American students, while having little effect on white students.

    If affirmative action were eliminated, the acceptance rates for black applicants would fall to 12.2 percent from 33.7 percent, while the acceptance rates for Hispanic applicants would drop to 12.9 percent from 26.8 percent, according to the study. Asian-American students would fill nearly 80 percent of the spaces not taken by black and Hispanic students, the researchers found, while the acceptance rate for white students would increase by less than 1 percent.”

  • annjohns

    Typical KQED. Three proponents of Hernandez’ bull oh I mean bill.

  • firefly

    Data from this link: clearly shows, in 2013, number of Hispanic students in CalState is 137k, 27k more than white (110k).

    Data from this link: clearly shows, in 2013, UC admitted 9322 hispanic freshmen, 1389 more than white (7933).

    So when Mr Hernandez will consider Hispanic not under-represented?

  • Cindy Wu

    Democrats need a more inclusive affirmative action message. Class-based affirmative action as proposed by Kahlenberg for college admission is one that I can support. Kahlenberg’s vision has been around since 1997. UCLA and Berkeley has implemented admission policies accordingly with great success. Will politicians see past politics and embrace it? As unlikely as college administrators to see past race in terms of diversity.

    Please read Kahlenberg’s article on titled “No Longer Black and White”.

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