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Op-Ed: Affirmative action benefits Asian Americans

By Harvey Dong, UC Berkeley Asian American & Asian Diaspora Studies Program

It’s time to bring back equal opportunity to California for all people of color who face racial discrimination, including Asian Americans.

When Prop 209 was passed in 1996 and implemented in 1998, it prohibited the California state government from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education.

At that time, I was a graduate student in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley.  I observed first hand Prop 209’s devastating effects on the campus.

Today the passage of Proposition 16 by California voters will turn back the damage caused by the earlier Proposition 209.  Prop 16 passage will place us on track towards racial justice, We need affirmative action reforms that will benefit the California state population–underrepresented Black, Brown, Asian, Native American and women.

Three areas will be affected by Prop 16 provisions::

1) Racially just public education admissions programs.

2) Equal employment opportunities in hiring and advancement for Black, Brown, Asian and Native American employees.

3) Affirmative action guidelines in public sector contracts, providing  opportunity for underrepresented groups including women-owned companies.

Affirmative action has  benefited Asian Americans in the employment fields. I knew Asian American construction workers who, through affirmative action programs, were able to be hired in skilled building trades including plumbing and drywall. I knew an Asian American woman who owned her own engineering company and was able to receive state contracts through state-mandated affirmative action. Myself having worked in construction, I became aware that without affirmative action regulations, construction companies would not hire Black workers.  

The removal of affirmative action programs through the passage of Proposition 209  further institutionalized racism and sexism and widened racial disparities in society.

Anti-affirmative action advocates today are conservative pundits who argue that affirmative action in academic admissions is reverse discrimination against Whites and Asian Americans. They claimed that model minority “hardworking” Asian Americans are negatively impacted by affirmative action.  This campaign is operated by neoconservative anti-affirmative organizations such as Students for Fair Admissions, an offshoot of the Project on Fair Representation; which is connected with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. They have been involved in recruiting Asian American plaintiffs for legal cases that attack affirmative action programs at Harvard and other campuses. Led by Edward Blum, much of their efforts over the decades have been to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement.

Asian Americans should not fall for this deception and division. We have an opportunity to actively stand against racial injustice and disparity in society today. Reinstatement of affirmative action is a step in this direction of what is needed today.

The civil rights movement was an important movement that benefited Asian Americans. It was in the context of the civil rights movement that the discriminatory national origins quota system ended with the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. Historically, Asian Americans have had to fight against immigration exclusion, job discrimination, segregation in housing and now, false accusations of being health and national security threats. Hate crimes are a common issue affecting Black, indigenous and people of color today.

In the past Asian Americans aligned with Black, Brown and Native Americans and formed alliances to change higher education and established the first Ethnic Studies programs across the nation.  Asian American support for Proposition 16 is a vote for  racial and gender equality,

Note: Harvey Dong, Ph.D., is a lecturer in the Asian American & Asian Diaspora Studies Program at UC Berkeley

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