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I Talked With My Family About Affirmative Action

The following is a letter that a second-generation Chinese American student from California sent to her family. 

To my family, on our conversation about affirmative action:

First of all, I really, really appreciate your willingness to engage in this messy, stressful debate about ACA-5 and affirmative action. These policies—this movement—have very real impacts on people’s lives. I think it’s the mark of a respectable family that we’re willing to debate with one another even though it stresses us out. I respect you all tremendously for that, and I wish I had expressed this more during our conversation. 

As you know, I am now about to graduate from Amherst College. Thanks to Mom and Dad’s unyielding support, I have been able to completely dedicate myself to my studies for the past three years. One of the things I decided to study was affirmative action policy—specifically, the relationship between Asian Americans and affirmative action. This time last year, I was sitting in a Boston courthouse at the final arguments of the Harvard affirmative action case. I researched and produced a whole podcast about Asian Americans and affirmative action, and my own episode investigated how first-generation Chinese Americans use WeChat to discuss affirmative action. 

All of these experiences have suddenly become very relevant again now that ACA-5/Prop 16 have become such highly discussed topics, and I found myself with a lot of thoughts after our conversation that I couldn’t properly express during our short Zoom conversation. All of these thoughts culminated into this letter that you’re now reading. That being said, nothing in this letter should be interpreted as me trying to “brainwash” people into following my political agenda. Whatever and whoever you end up voting for is none of my business. I am just attempting to show the wider context and my thought process behind these issues.

Finally, all of the hyperlinks in this letter have been carefully and intentionally chosen. They will indicate exactly where my statistics, historical claims and information come from, and you are welcome to click through the links to verify my sources. It is to no one’s benefit to blindly believe what we read or hear on social media, from friends or from family. 

So, what is ACA-5?

Since 1998, public universities in California have abided by the guidelines of state Proposition 209, which prohibits the consideration of race in public employment, public education, or public contracting. ACA 5, which is now Prop 16, is a ballot proposition that will be on California voter ballots this November 2020. Its passage would overturn Prop 209 and allow race and ethnicity to be factored into the many other considerations in the California public university admissions process (such as UCs and CSUs).

I think the immediate question that many Chinese Americans are concerned with is: Does ACA-5/Prop 16 mean that my child will be less likely to get into a UC/CSU? Here are some of the more specific concerns that I’ve heard:

  1. “ACA-5/Prop 16 means that schools will implement racial quotas. And since 15.5% of California is Asian, admissions officers will make sure that only 15.5% of all the UCs/CSUs is Asian.” Or, similarly, “My child will be rejected from a UC/CSU because they are Asian.”

  2. “The educational obstacles that students may face (i.e. not being able to afford extra tutoring, having to work a part-time job after school instead of studying, etc.) is a class issue. Therefore, considering race is unnecessary.”

  3. “Isn’t race-based affirmative action just a band aid solution for educational inequalities that exist way before students apply to college?”

These are valid concerns! However, they do not quite capture the full extent of the situation. Let’s look at the first concern:

“ACA-5/Prop 16 means that schools will implement racial quotas. And since 15.5% of California is Asian, admissions officers will make sure that only 15.5% of all the UCs/CSUs is Asian.”

What does ACA-5 actually say? Here’s the first section of ACA-5:

The California Constitution, pursuant to provisions enacted by the initiative Proposition 209 in 1996, prohibits the state from discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting. The California Constitution defines the state for these purposes to include the state, any city, county, public university system, community college district, school district, special district, or any other political subdivision or governmental instrumentality of, or within, the state.

This measure would repeal these provisions. The measure would also make a statement of legislative findings in this regard.

Even if you read the entire amendment, which you can do here, there is nothing in the amendment that says anything about using quotas, nor is there anything in this amendment that mandates—or even suggests—the use of statewide demographics when making these decisions. 

But, okay. ACA-5 says nothing about quotas, but maybe UC admissions officials just happen to love quotas and they use them anyway, because maybe that’s how they’ve done it before. Is that true? Before Prop 209, when race was allowed to be one of many considerations in the admissions process, did the student demographics reflect California’s demographics? 

Let’s compare UC admission demographics (from the official UC database) and California’s racial demographics (from the Public Policy Institute of California):

Even when race was allowed to be a factor in admissions, Asian admits were overrepresented by a factor of almost 3. In fact, Asians were the only racial group to be overrepresented at all. So, no. Student demographics did not reflect California’s demographics before Prop 209.

“But so many more Asians have been admitted since 1998! Isn’t this proof that Prop 209 allowed more Asians in?” 

It is completely true that more Asian Americans have been admitted to the UCs since 1998. In 1997, 14,559 Asian American students were admitted. In 2002, 18,934 Asian American students were admitted. In 2005, 20,077 were admitted, and in 2010, that number grew to 25,600. 

What’s also true is that the UCs admitted more overall students since 1998. In 1997, 44,740 students were admitted. In 2002, 58,886 students were admitted. In 2005, 61,420 students were admitted. In 2010, 78,984 students were admitted. 

One more time, let’s look at the years before and after Prop 209:

There is negligible difference between the growth rates. If the UCs are admitting more students overall, of course more Asians will be admitted to UCs. Admittedly, I’m not a statistics major. But there is further proof in this study from the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, which found that there is “no direct causal relationship between increased Asian American enrollment numbers in the UC and the implementation of race-blind admissions policies in 1998.”

Then how did Prop 209 actually affect Asian American admissions? Here are the numbers:

  • In 1994, the earliest set of enrollment data that the UCs offer and when race WAS allowed to be a factor in admission, 32.24% of Asian American students were admitted. 

  • In 2019, the most recent set of enrollment data that the UCs offer and when race was NOT allowed to be a factor in admission, 30.49% of Asian American students were admitted. 

If anything, the only thing that this data would indicate is that race-blind admissions hurt Asian American students. I’m not a statistician, but other scholars have studied the data and found that after Prop 209 banned affirmative action in public higher education in 1998, the rate of Asian American admissions decreased significantly for all UC campuses except UC Riverside. 

The truth is, no one knows exactly how race will be used under ACA 5, in 2020, unless we somehow get to sit next to UC admissions officers and read their minds while they make decisions. But here is what we do know from the law, and from qualified researchers who have gathered and studied the data: 

  • Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, you cannot base a hiring decision, in whole or in part, on a person’s race or gender. In addition, under Executive Order 11246, a college or university must take affirmative steps to ensure its hiring practices are fair, equitable, and free from discrimination. And according to the last bullet point of Prop 209, “If any part or parts of this section are found to be in conflict with federal law or the United States Constitution, the section shall be implemented to the maximum extent that federal law and the United States Constitution permit.”  In other words, no one will be denied admission BECAUSE they are Asian, Black, Latino, Native American, or white. No one will be admitted BECAUSE they are Asian, Black, Latino, Native American, or white. It is illegal by federal law.

  • As I stated earlier, after Prop 209 banned affirmative action in public higher education in 1998, the rate of Asian American admissions decreased significantly for all UC campuses except UC Riverside for the next 10 years. 

  • A year following passage of Proposition 209, barriers in government contracting led to an estimated annual loss of $1 billion in contract dollars by minority- and women-owned small businesses.

“The educational obstacles that students may face (i.e. not being able to afford extra tutoring, having to work a part-time job after school instead of studying, etc.) is a class issue. Therefore, considering race is unnecessary.”

Maybe another way to put this is: does race matter? And therefore, do race-conscious admissions still matter?

During our conversation, we also talked about the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. I want to first reiterate that Asian Americans absolutely face racism, and Asian American lives absolutely matter. I will be the first to denounce anyone who says Asian lives shouldn’t matter. But the United States of America currently values white lives more than Asian lives, Black lives, Latino lives, and all other non-white lives. That is why people are currently protesting and asking the country to pay attention to the fact that we are still grappling with racism. Most people aren’t running around with signs that say “White lives matter more than everyone else’s,” but we know it to be true—especially if you are not white.

Racism was baked into our country’s founding. As writer Dihua has eloquently described in a previous article, “racist ideology ebbs and flows in conjunction with economic and political circumstance. That is, racist beliefs proliferate when they serve incentive structures that depend on the marginalization of certain groups of people… Black people in the US have faced both exploitation and expropriation, beginning with their enslavement in the colonial era. The purpose of slavery, as the historian Barbara Fields has argued, was not ‘to produce white supremacy,’ but ‘to produce cotton or sugar or rice or tobacco’: enslavement created a class of people who, dispossessed of freedom, property, and rights, were forced to provide the labor necessary to get colonial economic enterprises such as cash crop agriculture off the ground. Even better, because slave labor was unpaid and lifelong, white planters could realize far greater profits than they could with a waged or temporary workforce comprising, say, indentured servants. Racist beliefs that Africans were ‘naturally’ or ‘biologically’ inferior and deserved to be enslaved because they were incapable of surviving otherwise helped to narratively reinforce enslaved Africans’ lived status as a dispossessed labor class.”

Sure, slavery was technically abolished in 1865, but right after slavery was abolished, the government implemented the black codes, which were essentially a legal way to put Black citizens into indentured servitude, to take voting rights away, to control where they lived and how they traveled and to seize children for labor purposes—not slavery, but the next best thing. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 weakened the effect of Black codes, allowing many Black men to start participating in politics, but Reconstruction only lasted 12 years. Retaliatory legislation then ushered in the Jim Crow era, in which Black and white people were segregated in all aspects of life: education, housing, public transportation, restaurants, prisons, drinking fountains, bathrooms, etc. What this meant in practice, however, was that Black people’s spaces were often inferior, if they existed at all: underfunded and crowded schools, poor hospital facilities, etc.

How about Asian people? There weren’t a lot of Asian people in the country during the Jim Crow era, but Asian people generally were not considered white and were also subject to school segregation, antimiscegenation laws (i.e. white and Asian people were not allowed to marry each other), and discriminatory business practices. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers, was the first American immigration law to exclude a specific ethnic group. Congress passed it in order to assuage white workers’ concerns about preserving “racial purity” and Chinese men supposedly taking their jobs (sound familiar?), even though Chinese people composed only .002 percent of the nation’s population. 

“But Asian people have worked so hard to get where we are! See? We’ve experienced so much racism, but unlike Black people, we still have such high household incomes and educational achievement!”

Asian people have undoubtedly faced enormous challenges coming to this country. But we’re not quite done with history yet. First of all, while any non-white American faces racism in America, Black people were enslaved in America for 200 years and Asian people were not. Please do not interpret this statement as me claiming that Asians do not face racism and hardship in America. This is a commonly expressed sentiment I see on WeChat anytime an article talks about the racism that other minorities experience. It is not what I am trying to say.

What are the effects of being enslaved? Was everything magically fixed as soon as slavery ended? No, as we saw from the Black codes and Jim Crow laws. But is everything magically fixed as soon as we remove the Jim Crow laws? Many of us second-generation kids have learned about slavery and segregation in US history, but the racism that lingered after the Jim Crow laws is much more complex. Here is how a recent New York Times article describes it:

While unchecked discrimination still plays a significant role in shunting opportunities for black Americans, it is white Americans’ centuries-long economic head start that most effectively maintains racial caste today. As soon as laws began to ban racial discrimination against black Americans, white Americans created so-called race-neutral means of maintaining political and economic power. For example, soon after the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote, white politicians in many states, understanding that recently freed black Americans were impoverished, implemented poll taxes. In other words, white Americans have long known that in a country where black people have been kept disproportionately poor and prevented from building wealth, rules and policies involving money can be nearly as effective for maintaining the color line as legal segregation. You do not have to have laws forcing segregated housing and schools if white Americans, using their generational wealth and higher incomes, can simply buy their way into expensive enclaves with exclusive public schools that are out of the price range of most black Americans.

Today, because of this country’s history, Black Americans continue to face enormous disadvantage across many aspects of life, including employment, education, housing, and more. (To read about this in more detail, I would encourage you to check out this article.) 

But how does our family figure into the picture? We can find our answer in the Immigration Act of 1965, which got rid of earlier quotas on immigration based on national origin (now there’s a real quota) and instead prioritized reuniting families, skilled laborers, and professionals. After 1965, so many Asians immigrated to the United States that the percentage of Asians in the US went from less than 1% in 1965 to 6% in 2015, and the modern immigration wave from Asia accounts for one-quarter of all immigrants who have arrived in the U.S. since 1965. And because immigration policies favored skilled laborers and professionals, immigrants from South and East Asia are more likely than U.S. born residents to have a bachelor’s degree or more. Afterwards came the Immigration Act of 1990, which increased the number of permanent work-based visas and made changes to the temporary skilled worker categories—again favoring highly educated, highly skilled immigrants. 

Nobody lands on American soil fully aware of its history. I certainly am continuing to learn, even though I was born here. Many of my international friends from Asia have told me about how coming to America—going from the majority to the minority—was the first time they became aware of their race. But if we do look at history, the Asian people who immigrated to this country after 1965, which includes our family, are on average more educated and more skilled because of the way that immigration policies were structured. Many end up entering high-paying fields such as science, medicine, technology, and finance. I am not saying that immigrating to this country as an Asian person is easy, or that we do not face discrimination. I am also not saying that every single Asian who came to America after 1965 came with a PhD. You’d only need to look at other groups of Asian American immigrants, who were often fleeing conflict in Vietnam, Myanmar, and Bhutan to know this. (Arriving as a refugee from a war-torn country inevitably corresponds with lower than average median household income, and lower rates of educational attainment. Chinese Americans in New York City also have one of the highest poverty rates of any ethnic group. Not every Asian is “doing better than Black people.”) But many Asian Americans did get more of a headstart in this country when they arrived, because they happened to be people who already had advantages to begin with in their home country. 

Along the same lines, Asian Americans do not experience the legacy of slavery in the same way that Black Americans do—especially Asian Americans who immigrated to America after 1965, one year after the Jim Crow era ended. Post-1965 Asian immigrants arrived in a country that had just outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a victory won by many activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. Post-1965 Asian immigrants did not begin their lives in America after being enslaved for 200 years, but they were able to benefit from legal changes brought about by those who were previously enslaved. Again, this is not inherently any Asian person’s fault and it does not mean that Asians do not experience hardships and racism. This only means that just as our struggles are real, Black people’s struggles are also very real, and at times very different from our struggles. By living in this country, we inherit its legacy—whether or not we decide to recognize it. And our lives are affected by this legacy, whether we like it or not. 

Why do I bring up all of this history when talking about affirmative action? The additional consideration of race in the college application process is simply attempting to take into account the fact that we are still living with the weight of this country’s racism. Race inevitably shapes every person’s life—white, Asian, Black, Latino, or Native American, or any combination of them.

After 9/11, hate crimes against South Asian Americans spiked, even resulting in incidents involving murder and permanent brain damage. Today, in 2020, in San Francisco, people are being spit on in the street just because they are Chinese-looking. Hate crimes against Asians are on the rise all across the country because of the coronavirus, and I plan on writing my senior thesis about coronavirus-related anti-Asian racism. Asian lives matter, but the US certainly doesn’t seem to think they do. 

It’s awful to see—and even more awful to experience. Hearing “corona” sneered at me in the streets was one of the worst moments I experienced last semester. But it’s necessary to recognize that the same white supremacy that spits at Asian-looking people in the street telling them to go back to their country also disproportionately kills Black men like George Floyd, even though Black people on average resist less to police officers. It’s the same system that ensures that schools that mostly serve students of color get $23 billion less funding than mostly white school districts, that disciplines Black students more frequently and more severely than white students for the same misbehaviors, and that is responsible for Black maternal mortality rates so abysmal, it’s considered a human rights issue. Black lives matter, but the US certainly doesn’t seem to think they do. 

And so to finally return to the initial concern: race cannot be substituted for class. It is absolutely true that race is very tied to class. Because of this country’s history with slavery, Black people have been denied the opportunity to accumulate wealth for generations. But solely basing affirmative action on class (which the UC admissions criteria already does consider) does not fix everything. 

If we hypothetically compare a poor white student and a poor Asian American student—and for the sake of argument, let’s say everything about their socioeconomic status is exactly the same—we know that both students will face hardships as they grow up. Maybe they both had to work two jobs and take care of a sick relative growing up, and they both couldn’t afford SAT tutoring.

But the poor white student did not grow up being teased about his mom’s funny accent, and did not grow up getting mistaken for every other white boy in his class. The poor white student never had to bear the burden of becoming the family’s translator and learn how to navigate bills and tax laws in middle school, as is this case for many second generation Asian Americans. That poor white student (God forbid) will be more likely to die of an unintentional injury, unlike Asian Americans, whose leading cause of death among ages 15-24 is suicide. Class cannot explain away anti-Asian hate crimes. No matter how many Teslas I own, PhDs I earn, or houses I buy, if a racist person sees my face, they will scream at me for being a dirty bat-eater from China. 

By the same token, if we replace the Asian American student with a Black American student, that poor white student did not grow up watching people clutch their bags in fear every time they walked past someone. That poor white student, just by virtue of having a white-sounding name, will be more likely to get a job interview. That poor white student will be encouraged by his teachers to take advanced classes, unlike his Black classmates. That poor white student will not be shot by a police officer for playing with a toy gun. There are realities in this country that exist beyond class, and they have real impacts on people’s mental and physical health. The science backs it up

“Isn’t race-based affirmative action just a band-aid solution for educational inequalities that exist way before students apply to college?”

We can all agree that people born into money, white people, and men usually have it easier in life—not necessarily through any fault of their own, but because of the way our society is. Affirmative action recognizes that and is therefore trying to account for these different experiences. We did not start with a level playing field and arbitrarily decide to pick one group to elevate above everyone else. The playing field was not level to begin with.

Affirmative action is absolutely a band-aid attempt. These inequalities in education show up long before students apply to college, and if anyone truly believes that affirmative action will cure racism, I would be the first person to vehemently disagree with them. Wouldn’t it be better if we could fix racial inequalities from the beginning and judge people purely based on their merits? Of course. Yes! A million times yes. But we cannot solve centuries of racism by suddenly deciding to not see race. We have to recognize that the Black, Asian, Latino, and Native American students who are applying to college right now have had their lives shaped by race. In other words, when we mark our racial identity on our college applications or public employment applications, we are simply providing a fuller, more accurate picture of our lives in which race is one of many, many factors that has had an effect. 

At the same time, of course, we have to do the best we can to remove these inequalities from the very beginning—we can have affirmative action and we can vote to fund schools better. Both are moving towards the same goal.


Final thoughts

When I started reflecting on our conversation, I did not intend on pouring out an entire manifesto on affirmative action and America’s racial history. What motivated me to write an entire essay that I will never receive a grade for, when I could have just shut up and never talk about politics with family again? Maybe it’s because I grew up my whole life desperately wishing I were white, or wondering why a random white boy jeered Konnichiwa at me in the park, or feeling indescribably sad when my mom told me about all the times people have screamed at her Chinese American colleagues to “go back to where you came from.” 

I graduated high school not knowing much about what I wanted to do besides the vague notion of being ‘pre-med,’ but somehow, my academic trajectory at college has heavily centered around race and ethnic studies. I’ve spent the past two years fighting my school’s administration to establish an Asian American Studies department, and the past three years learning everything I can about what it means to be Asian in this country—and how we can make that experience more just. And maybe the biggest lessons I’ve learned thus far is that one, my personal experience as an Asian American cannot even begin to encompass the diversity of the “Asian American” experience, and two, being Asian American means coexisting with and acknowledging the history of this country and the experiences of every other racial group. To me, it is unproductive to point fingers and tear down other racial groups, when what we really should be focusing on is changing the system that made us all lower-class citizens in this country in the first place. 

I’m also painfully aware that my life experience may be radically different than yours. I was born and raised in America for 21 years, but many members of our family immigrated to America long before I was alive. And as I wrote in the beginning, many members of our family have surely made great sacrifices for my well-being. While I was at college making new friends and reading about critical race theory for the first time, both of my parents were back in California, going to work everyday to make sure that we could keep affording my tuition. It is a luxury that I didn’t have to worry about any of this and only focus on studying what I liked, and I am only hoping to share the knowledge I have been lucky enough to gain as a result of my family’s hard work. And even though I have studied race a lot, I am in no way claiming that I am an ‘expert’ on race, or affirmative action, or US history—I just care a lot about it. I am learning and re-learning everyday, and I plan on doing so for the rest of my life. 

And finally, to wrap up this long letter, please know that I am more than happy to further discuss anything I’ve written here, or anything marginally relevant to these topics. (Where can I read more about _____? I disagree with what you said about ______, and I want to talk to you about it.) E-mail me. Text me. Send me back your own dissertation. Talk to me. We’re the only family we’ve got.


Wan Ting

Author’s note: Since I sent this letter, I have received a response from one of my relatives and written a second letter back to them. And even though it’s hard, my family and I are still having conversations about these topics to this day. I have learned a lot about my family’s life experiences, and they have learned a lot about mine. We still disagree on a lot of things. Even so, I have been grateful and pleasantly surprised by how my family members have taken my arguments seriously instead of immediately condemning me as a self-hating, ignorant young person. 

One of the reasons I am so proud to be Chinese American is because of all of the amazing, diverse experiences our community has. I hope we respect and deeply consider each other’s experiences instead of immediately invalidating them because they are different. 

This is the first article in a series on affirmative action that the WeChat Project will be publishing. Stay tuned!


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