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Op-Ed: Setting the Record Straight on affirmative action

By Margaretta Lin, JustCites

In this time when every President Trump tweet about the kung fu virus sparks another spree of attacks on Asian Americans, I wonder why some Asian Americans oppose California’s Proposition 16, which would remove the ban on public affirmative action. They seem to accept a divisive and unfounded argument that hard working Asian American students are not going to get into their dream schools because of competition from less deserving students. 

I believe that this argument defies relevant data and, more profoundly, places some Asian Americans on the wrong side of history.

The reality is that affirmative action actually advances Asian American interests.  I know this to be true because affirmative action helped me attend Berkeley Law School.  When I was in college, I wanted to become a lawyer, to right the wrongs my family experienced.  But I did not know how to plan for my future. 

My college educated father was killed in a plane crash when I was young and my mother never had the opportunity to go to college. 

Shu Ren Lin
Shu Ren Lin

The pre-law advisor at my college had taken one look at me and decided that I was not law school material.  I did not have stellar grades and my LSAT scores were mediocre because we could not afford test prep.  Fortunately, grace had given me a professor who encouraged me to apply to Berkeley Law.  The difference I went on to make in the world, including helping the City of Oakland survive the Great Recession as its Deputy City Administrator and teaching law, public policy, and planning students at UC Berkeley, would never have happened without the second look that affirmative action provides.

There is a fundamental misconception about affirmative action – the unfounded belief that affirmative action results in less deserving Black and Latinx students admitted.  Instead of expanding opportunities, we reach for scapegoats.  This is something that Asian Americans know well from serving as convenient scapegoats throughout America’s history, let’s remember Vincent Chin, and we should not buy into it today.  When we examine UC student admissions before and after the 1998 affirmative action ban, Black and Latinx students, given their small numbers, are not the real competition.  Rather, it’s the increasing out of state students, which have gone from about 11% of all admissions to over 30%.  The racial wedge of affirmative action is diverting Asian Americans from engaging in common cause with all Californians to address the systemic issues and demand that publicly funded universities prioritize the needs of Californians.  

Margaretta Lin
Margaretta Lin

The incredibly insidious model minority stereotype masks the reality that Asian Americans have the highest rising rate of income inequality and many would benefit from affirmative action.  Low income Laotian and even Chinese Americans working afterschool minimum wage jobs instead of doing resume boosting extracurriculars all benefit from the leg up that affirmative action provides.  If this time of COVID and racism have taught us anything, it’s that Asian Americans desperately need to unite to build political power to expand the overall scope of opportunity instead of squabbling over scraps.  We can only unite as the fastest growing racial group in America if we care about one another and build common cause across our diversity.

There is another reason why Asian Americans should support affirmative action which is rooted in our shared history of exclusion.  Many Asian Americans, like myself, are only here because of the courage of Black and other Americans who fought against injustice.  I did not meet my father, who had left Taiwan to pursue his studies and political freedom, until I was 4 because of the only law in US history that explicitly banned a racial group–the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Asian Americans owe a karmic debt to the civil rights movement and its tailwinds that finally expunged this racist law in 1965.  This is what allowed my family to be reunited and made whole.  This is what enabled the majority of Asians to be in the US today.  Asian Americans repay this debt by embracing the rest of Americans as our family, too.  

Asian Americans should then care that there are only 3% Black students enrolled in California’s UCs, when they represent 6% of eligible high school graduates.  We should care that UC faculty are overwhelmingly White.   We should care about the exclusion of Asian American, Black, Latinx, and women-owned companies from government contracts.  These issues of fundamental unfairness are the direct result of California’s ban on public affirmative action.

As former First Lady Michelle Obama said best,

“[W]hat it takes to build strong, successful young people isn’t genetics, or pedigree, or good luck. It’s opportunity.”

As people who have the fortune of living in this land of opportunity, let’s make opportunity a reality for all of us by supporting a proven tool for inclusion and belonging–vote Yes on Proposition 16.

About the Author: Margaretta Wan-Ling Lin is currently the Executive Director of Just Cities, a leading racial justice organization, and UC Berkeley teacher in planning and public policy justice.  Her childhood experiences of racial oppression compelled her to serve as a lifelong advocate for justice including as a civil and human rights lawyer; senior government official; teacher of law, planning, and public policy students; and founder of community institutions for inclusion and belonging.  Read more at https://www.justcities.work/aboutjustcities

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  1. Always prefer race-neutral AA, where poor families would have more chance and advantages going to colleges. However propositions like CA proposition 16 tries to reverse the trend to use race as a factor in deciding admissions and job opportunities. No on Prop 16.

  2. Hi Fan Jiao–the 22 years of public affirmative action ban in California has given us the data to show that race-neutral efforts are not sufficient. I’m happy to discuss more if you would like to email me at [email protected].

  3. Margaret
    What an excellent article, thought provoking and a touching story. I did not know about the Chinese
    exclusion act.
    Thank you for the education


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