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In California, A Vocal Minority of Asian Parents Helped Defeat Affirmative Action Once Before. This Time It Could Be Harder.

Some Chinese immigrants are fighting a plan to bring affirmative action to California's public universities like UCLA. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)
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UPDATE June 24: Ballot Measure To Overturn State Ban On Affirmative Action Moves Forward

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In 2014, Chunhua Liao started a petition to stop an ultimately-unsuccessful effort to restore affirmative action at California's public universities.

Within two weeks, the scientist and father of two young boys recalled, the petition had drawn more than 100,000 signatures -- many from Chinese-born immigrants like him who fear racial preferences would deny their children seats at selective schools.

"That one went viral," Liao said, still awed. "This time, it's slower."

Liao is referring to a second online petition he launched three months ago to fight a new, more ambitious effort to bring back the consideration of race and gender -- not just in college admissions, but also in state contracting and hiring.

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Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 passed the Assembly on Wednesday and is expected to clear the Senate this month in time to be placed on the November ballot. The initiative would repeal an affirmative-action ban that was set when voters approved Proposition 209 more than two decades ago.

The new legislation has gained urgency as protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month churn the country's consciousness about the systemic inequality and abuse endured by Black Americans.

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"I'm so grateful I didn't have to convince you that racism is real, because George Floyd did that," said ACA 5's author Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber before Wednesday's vote.

California State Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) authored ACA 5 to repeal the state ban on affirmative action. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Weber said that repealing Prop 209 will not solve racism, but "it's one of the many tools that we have to have in California to say California is the land of great opportunity."

ACA 5 has scores of endorsements, including from Gov. Gavin Newsom, the California Federation of Teachers and progressive Asian American organizations.

But Chunhua Liao said what's building public support for ACA 5 are "current events."

"I think there's some people who try to show some sympathy by offering special treatment for some racial groups," Liao said.

Liao, who is leading the "No ACA 5" campaign,said even as he and other activists face more of an "uphill" battle, they continue to email and call legislators. Should the measure advance to the November ballot he said not all is lost, pointing to a Pew Research Center survey that found most Americans oppose race-conscious college admissions.

One thing the activists have developed a penchant for: Borrowing heavily from Martin Luther King, Jr. ("they will not be judged by the color of their skin") on their Facebook and WeChat pages.

Chinese-born opponents of ACA 5 often cite Martin Luther King, Jr. for why they think the legislation is racist. (No ACA5 Facebook page)

Surveys show that most Asian Americans back affirmative action. A 2014 Field Poll of Californiansfound support from 69% of Asians surveyed, compared to 81.4% of Latinos and 83.1% of African Americans.

It is White voters who have shown the least support for affirmative action -- only 57.3% supported it in the Field Poll -- and who may prove to be the bigger hurdle for ACA 5 supporters at the ballot box.

Conservative White-led organizations opposing affirmative action, like the free-market think tank Pacific Research Institute, have come out against ACA 5. Others are also bankrolling lawsuits against schools like Harvard, which they charge with discriminating against Asian Americans.

Among Asian Americans, surveys have shown affirmative action's support is the smallest among Chinese, according to an analysis by APIA Dataout of University of California, Riverside. That was borne out in 2014, when a predominantly Chinese group of activists became the face of the opposition.

Surveys have shown affirmative action's support is the smallest among Chinese Americans. (AAPI Data)

Their online and in-person protests led some Asian American politicians to publicly refuse to support Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, which would ask voters to bring affirmative action back onto the campuses of public universities.

Three Asian American senators who ended up voting for SCA 5, including now-Congressman Ted Lieu, drew a lot of heat from Chinese activists. The trio later asked its author, Sen. Ed Hernandez, to withdraw his legislation.

Looking back, the ballot initiative lacked organized support, said Vincent Pan, who advocated for SCA 5 at the time.

"There wasn't like a campaign set up around it," said Pan, who is co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, based in San Francisco. "The legislation was way ahead of the community."

In contrast, ACA 5 is backed by a diverse group of organizations under the umbrella of the Opportunity For All coalition that Pan co-chairs and reflects "what the entire state thinks about the need to address both structural racism and systemic discrimination."

Pan praised the breadth of ACA 5, which he said would not only benefit people of color, but women.

"Prop 209 wiped out all the (small business) programs to support people of color-owned businesses and women-owned businesses," Pan said. "And we know in order to recover from the COVID-related economic downturn, we're going to need those small businesses."

But affirmative action as it relates to education remains the most deeply divisive aspect of ACA 5 in the Asian American community.

That was evident in the fact that the API caucus was the only one not to endorse ACA 5, and that none of its co-authors are Asian American.

The votes from Asian American members of the Assembly were a mixed bag. Eight of the 10 Democrats on the Asian American Pacific Legislative Caucus voted for ACA 5.

The other two Democrats -- Ed Chau of Monterey Park and Kansen Chu of San Jose -- sat out the vote.

Meanwhile, Republicans Phil Chen, Steven Choi and Vince Fong voted no. Republican Tyler Diep did not vote.

Evan Low, D-Campbell, supported ACA 5 although he said that it comes at his political peril. He said during Wednesday's hearing that he had gotten 99 calls and emails in support, and 3,700 in opposition. Elected officials, he recounted, were asking him "Aren't you Yellow? Why are you voting against your own people? Why are you betraying us?"

Still, Low said during his remarks before Wednesday's vote that he understood opponents' anxiety, pointing out that many went into debt so their children could attend college.

Evan Low said he was accused of betraying other Asian Americans for supporting ACA 5. (No ACA 5 Facebook page)

"Asian Pacific Islanders, particularly the Chinese community, fear the loss of good hard-working people who believe that if you do the hard work, as you are told, they will have their chance as well too," Low said.

And because many are immigrants, Low said, they didn't understand the long-standing challenges faced by the other groups.

But Choi, an Irvine Republican, equated passing ACA 5 to legalizing racism and sexism.

"Colleagues, I do not want to live in a state of where the color of my skin or my my race or my sex, or my national origin, determines my qualifications for a position, a job or entering to college," Choi said Wednesday. "I came here to this country to get away from ideologies like that."

Asian American members of the California Legislature pose for AAPI Month 2019. (AAPI Legislative Caucus)

Chunhua Liao echoes the sentiment. He said his fight against ACA 5, and SCA 5 before that, is not because he's worried his two sons can't get into good schools. He said he is fortunate to have resources and connections.

Liao, who founded the Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation six years ago to fight SCA 5, said his motive is that he wants to uphold the U.S. Constitution he's embraced as a naturalized citizen.

"The only way to keep this kind of multiracial, multicultural country going forward smoothly is to treat each individual equally, not trying to group them into different skin colors," Liao said.

Meanwhile, he's keeping an eye on his petition against ACA5. More than 83.000 had signed as of Friday afternoon.