The California Assembly on Wednesday decided to let voters choose whether to overturn the state's 24-year-old ban of affirmative action programs — capping an emotional hours-long debate in the Legislature that highlighted tension between the state's Asian and black communities.
The proposed amendment to the state's Constitution, which still must pass the Senate and be approved by voters, would repeal a 1996 amendment that banned “preferential treatment” based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. The push has gotten a boost recently from the worldwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality prompted by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
But the repeal effort faces strong, organized opposition from many in the state's Asian community, who fear it would make it harder for them to gain admission to the state's prestigious public universities — where students of Asian descent have been overrepresented.
Democratic Assemblyman Evan Low, who is of Chinese descent and shares an apartment with his police officer brother in Silicon Valley, said sitting elected officials in his district have asked him things like: “Why are you voting against your own people?” He said his office received more than 3,000 emails and phone calls opposing the repeal compared to just nine in support.
Low said that tension in the community spread to the Legislature, noting that no one from the Asian and Pacific Islander Caucus signed on as a co-author of the repeal. Wednesday, Low called out the Assembly Black Caucus for not contacting him to ask him for his vote or even to just talk about the issue.
“What am I to do, without even having the decency of a conversation to discuss the difficulties of race?” Low asked his colleagues on Wednesday. “If we can’t even have these tough conversations, what do you think is going to happen to the electorate?"
Low eventually did vote for the repeal, telling The Associated Press in an interview he voted “yes” because of his commitment to social justice and his belief that “injustice to one is injustice to us all.” But he acknowledged it will likely hurt him politically, saying office has received calls from constituents threatening to recall him from office.
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Low added he did not run for office for "self-preservation.”
“How do you go to a Black Lives Matter rally and say, ‘Yes, I am with you,’ but then all of a sudden say, 'Oh, well, not here, not on that part,” Low said.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who authored the repeal, apologized on the Assembly floor just before the vote for not contacting lawmakers individually. She said the physical distancing requirements because of the coronavirus and the Legislature's shortened session made it difficult to do that.
“I’m so grateful I didn’t have to convince you that racism is real because George Floyd did that,” Weber said. “So that was one conversation I didn't have to have on this issue.”
Assemblyman David Chiu said not everyone in the Asian community opposed the repeal, saying “over 100 organizations and community leaders representing hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans support this measure.”
Not everyone was convinced. Assemblyman Steven Choi, a Republican from Irvine who was born in South Korea, said he opposed the measure because it would “legalize racism and sexism.”
“I do not want to live in a state where the color of my skin or my race or my sex or my national origin determines my qualifications for a position, a job or entering to a college,” he said. “I came here to this country to get away from ideologies like that.”
The Assembly voted 58-9 to let voters decide whether to repeal the amendment. If the state Senate concurs by June 25, the question would be added to the November ballot — further intensifying an election year that already includes a presidential contest.
Since the 1996 amendment, at least seven other states have adopted similar policies: Washington, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire and Oklahoma. A constitutional amendment in Colorado failed to pass in 2008.
“This is not the same California that voted on this 25 years ago,” said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, a Democrat from Los Angeles.
Hispanics surpassed whites in 2015 as the state’s largest ethnic group. As of 2019, Asians account for 15.3% of the state's population while African Americans make up 6.5%.
At the University of California system, Asians account for 30% of the undergraduate and graduate student population, followed by whites at 24%, Hispanics at 22% and blacks at 4%. California State University, the nation’s largest four-year public university with 23 campuses and nearly 482,000 students, has a student body that is nearly 75% people of color.