Racial de­bate flares again

Af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion once split Democrats. Now it’s resur­faced in the race for gov­er­nor.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Seema Me­hta and Me­lanie Ma­son

A de­bate about af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion has emerged in the cam­paign for gov­er­nor, threat­en­ing to in­ject a po­ten­tially volatile racial el­e­ment into the 2018 con­test af­ter the is­sue di­vided Cal­i­for­nia Democrats along eth­nic lines three years ago.

The ques­tion of whether race should be con­sid­ered in ad­mis­sions to Cal­i­for­nia’s col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties was raised in re­cent weeks when the state’s Latino and black leg­isla­tive cau­cuses sent a let­ter to the top six gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates.

Leg­is­la­tors polled the politi­cians about their views on af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion and track records on di­ver­sity ef­forts, and asked them to de­tail pro­pos­als to di­ver­sify col­leges and state gov­ern­ment that they would pur­sue if elected gov­er­nor. The can­di­dates were also asked about ef­forts they would un­der­take to help di­ver­sify lead­er­ship in the pri­vate sec­tor, where they have no of­fi­cial con­trol.

For Cal­i­for­nia po­lit­i­cal ob­servers, the ques­tion­naire re­calls a 2014 move by Latino and black law­mak­ers to re­peal Propo­si­tion 209, which vot­ers ap­proved in 1996 to ban af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion in uni­ver­sity ad­mis­sions.

The ef­fort met un­ex­pected re­sis­tance. Af­ter the mea­sure to lift the ban qui­etly won Se­nate ap­proval, it caught the at­ten­tion of Asian Amer­i­can ac­tivists

who said their chil­dren would be harmed if af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion was re­in­stated. On so­cial me­dia net­works, some ar­gued that their chil­dren had to per­form bet­ter than stu­dents of other races to be ad­mit­ted at elite uni­ver­si­ties, a sit­u­a­tion that would be ag­gra­vated if the ban was re­scinded.

In re­sponse to the con­cerns, Asian Amer­i­can state se­na­tors who sup­ported the mea­sure ex­pressed new reser­va­tions, and oth­ers in the As­sem­bly vowed to op­pose it, lead­ing then-As­sem­bly Speaker John A. Pérez to shelve it.

But ten­sions lin­gered. Sev­eral Latino and black law­mak­ers with­drew their en­dorse­ments of then-state Sen. Ted Lieu to suc­ceed re­tir­ing Rep. Henry Wax­man when the Tor­rance Demo­crat backed off his sup­port for the mea­sure af­ter ini­tially vot­ing for it.

“We re­ally got caught off guard in the de­bate,” state Sen. Ri­cardo Lara (D-Bell Gar­dens) said of the bill’s fail­ure and its af­ter­math. Lara, who is a mem­ber of the Cal­i­for­nia Latino Leg­isla­tive Cau­cus, said the is­sue is per­sonal to him as a ben­e­fi­ciary of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion. “We weren’t pre­pared for that.”

The dis­cus­sion about af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion in the Cal­i­for­nia gov­er­nor’s race comes at a time when the is­sue is also reemerg­ing at the fed­eral, state and lo­cal lev­els. Pres­i­dent Trump’s Jus­tice De­part­ment just launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into “race­based dis­crim­i­na­tion” in col­lege ad­mis­sions. And some Asian Amer­i­can ac­tivists, con­cerned about the dis­clo­sure of eth­nic­ity in the col­lege ad­mis­sions process, are protest­ing the col­lec­tion of race-based data at state­houses and school dis­tricts across the na­tion, in­clud­ing in Irvine and Cer­ri­tos.

“We think Cal­i­for­nia has be­come post-racial. This elec­tion will test that,” Karthick Ra­makr­ish­nan, an as­so­ciate dean at the UC River­side School of Pub­lic Pol­icy, said of the gov­er­nor’s race. “Po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion has a way of bring­ing out some of th­ese dy­nam­ics … in ways that could end up caus­ing racial ten­sion in the state.”

Three years af­ter the ef­fort to re­peal Propo­si­tion 209, Assem­bly­man Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), chair­man of the Cal­i­for­nia Leg­isla­tive Black Cau­cus, said leg­is­la­tors asked the gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates about af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion not to cre­ate a “gotcha” mo­ment, but to find out their views on an is­sue that will be re­vis­ited in the fu­ture.

The Democrats in the race — for­mer Los An­ge­les Mayor An­to­nio Vil­laraigosa, Lt. Gov. Gavin New­som, for­mer state schools chief De­laine Eastin and state Trea­surer John Chi­ang — all ex­pressed strong sup­port for af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, while the top two Repub­li­cans in the race, Assem­bly­man Travis Allen of Hunt­ing­ton Beach and busi­ness­man John Cox, did not re­spond to the let­ter.

“At some point, one of them will be the next gov­er­nor. There will more than likely be a bill that will end up on their desk, and we want to have a sense of what they’ll do with that bill,” Holden said.

But he ac­knowl­edged that restart­ing the dis­cus­sion was not with­out risks.

“Some­times it’s very un­com­fort­able and not al­ways con­ve­nient to have a con­ver­sa­tion about race,” he said.

Not all eth­nic groups were rep­re­sented when af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion was raised last month to the 2018 can­di­dates. The let­ter was signed by the chairs of the black and Latino cau­cuses. The Cal­i­for­nia Asian Pa­cific Is­lan­der Leg­isla­tive Cau­cus, or­ga­niz­ers ac­knowl­edged, was not asked to join.

Bill Wong, a Demo­cratic strate­gist, said that for Asian Amer­i­can politi­cians, the af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion de­bate is like deal­ing with “an awk­ward fam­ily mem­ber.”

“When you talk to the in­di­vid­ual [Demo­cratic Asian Pa­cific Is­lan­der] cau­cus mem­bers, they all sup­port af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion,” said Wong, who sup­ports Chi­ang for gov­er­nor. “They also un­der­stand there are parts of their com­mu­ni­ties and con­stituen­cies that don’t un­der­stand the en­tire his­tory of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion.”

Lara said leg­is­la­tors learned lessons from their failed ef­fort in 2014. Their views, he said, have since been shaped by polling that found many Cal­i­for­ni­ans didn’t know what con­sti­tutes af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion.

Leg­is­la­tors in­clud­ing Lara as well as out­side in­ter­est groups are try­ing to shift the de­bate over af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion in hopes of mak­ing it less po­lit­i­cally toxic. Rather than dis­cus­sions of quo­tas or com­pe­ti­tion over a lim­ited num­ber of ad­mis­sion slots, they ar­gue the de­bate should be cen­tered on ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion, such as tu­ition costs and pre­pared­ness in kinder­garten through 12th grade.

“We wanted to shift the par­a­digm,” said Betty Hung, pol­icy di­rec­tor for Asian Amer­i­cans Ad­vanc­ing Jus­tice – Los An­ge­les, a civil rights group. “Rather than look­ing at this as a zero-sum is­sue, we want to ex­pand the pie of higher ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­nity for ev­ery­one.”

Repub­li­cans have tried in the past to use the is­sue of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion to cud­gel Democrats in dis­tricts with high num­bers of Asian Amer­i­cans, the fastest­grow­ing vot­ing bloc in the state. In 2014, the party’s ef­forts con­trib­uted to vic­to­ries for Repub­li­can leg­isla­tive can­di­dates Janet Nguyen of Gar­den Grove, LingLing Chang of Di­a­mond Bar and Young Kim of Fuller­ton.

The is­sue could be a hur­dle in the gov­er­nor’s race. New­som, the front-run­ner in polling and fundrais­ing, has staked out the most lib­eral po­si­tions among the Demo­cratic can­di­dates. But if Vil­laraigosa or Chi­ang make it to the gen­eral elec­tion and there is no GOP can­di­date stand­ing, their paths to vic­tory run through more con­ser­va­tive re­gions such as the In­land Em­pire and the Cen­tral Val­ley, where vot­ers might be less likely to sup­port af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion.

Chi­ang, the son of Tai­wanese im­mi­grants, may find him­self in a predica­ment when it comes to dis­cussing his stance on af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion. He has con­sid­er­able sup­port from Asian Amer­i­can donors and vot­ers. And while he called for the re­peal of the af­fir­ma­tive­ac­tion ban in re­sponse to the re­cent let­ter, he has not al­ways been so vo­cal.

When Chi­ang was state con­troller, he was asked in 2014 about the ef­fort to over­turn the ban. He de­murred, say­ing he only speaks out about fi­nan­cial is­sues.

“I com­ment on other is­sues se­lec­tively,” he told a Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio af­fil­i­ate in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

But it’s in­evitable that the on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion about af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion will take on new rel­e­vance in the gov­er­nor’s race, said state Assem­bly­woman Lorena Gon­za­lez Fletcher (D-San Diego).

“This is the first time in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory we have a le­git­i­mate shot of hav­ing a per­son of color as gov­er­nor,” she said.

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

A GROUP OF Demo­cratic state law­mak­ers sent a let­ter last month to gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates sur­vey­ing them on their stances on af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion in the uni­ver­sity ad­mis­sions process. Above, the UCLA cam­pus.

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