On June 10, 2020, the California Assembly overwhelmingly voted for ACA 5, which puts the repeal of Proposition 209 on the November ballot. Prop 209 abolished affirmative action in California.

Affirmative action was a policy that considered the impact of race, ethnic and sex discrimination in determining college admissions and the awarding of contracts for goods and services in the public domain. It was a policy attempt at righting past wrongs.

In 1978, Alan Bakke challenged the affirmative action program at UC Davis Medical School. The Bakke decision by the United States Supreme court upheld the consideration of race in admissions but stopped the use of quotas in UC’s affirmative action programs. 

In 1996, Proposition 209, which eliminated all affirmative action programs in California, was passed by the voters and crippled any attempts to remedy injustices based on racial prejudice and gender discrimination. It was the first electoral test of affirmative action policies in the country and started s movement to challenge said policies nationwide.

Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 (ACA 5), passed by a two-thirds vote of the Assembly and State Senate, will put the issue of affirmation action before the voters of California once again.

When I served in the Assembly, almost every year we tried to put the repeal of Prop 209 before the voters. At the time we couldn’t muster the two-thirds required vote to put it directly on the ballot, and going through the initiative process proved untimely and undoable.

The hope this time around is that the public mood has changed with all that is happening and the State Constitution will be amended by the repeal of Prop 209. In this political contest, the Asian American community will be a battleground for those opposed to affirmative action and those supportive of it.

Some Asian Americans have felt that AA students in particular have been discriminated against as it relates to college admissions at the best universities in the country. They were the ones who challenged the Harvard admission process in the recent 2019 federal court challenge.

Their lawsuit, filed by Students for Fair Admissions on behalf of Asian American plaintiffs, claimed discrimination. The argument was that less-qualified students, primarily black and brown students, were being admitted under Harvard’s affirmative action program and that more qualified Asian American students were being denied and subject to a soft enrollment quota.

The court ruled in favor of the university but the proponents of the lawsuit are appealing and their challenge will likely end up in the United States Supreme Court.

Being vigilant about possible discrimination against any group is important but the anti-affirmative action bent by some Asian American groups is misplaced, in my opinion. The many issues that are surfacing related to discrimination and racism that have obviously been in play for decades have galvanized a movement to finally do something systemically about racism.

The repeated killing of unarmed African Americans again and again, the default to shooting or choking to death a suspect rather than other enforcement alternatives, the impact of the pandemic and other diseases on certain groups, the growing epidemic of homelessness, and the long-standing employment gap, income gap, education gap, and technology gap all disproportionately have a negative effect on African Americans (and other groups). 

Yes, individuals perpetuate it and should be held accountable, but the fact that it is so pervasive and keeps happening over and over means it is in the very DNA of society, in the very fiber of the system. That’s why it is called systemic racism.

If the problem is systemic, then the solution needs to be systemic as well. Affirmative action and equal opportunity programs (EOP), back in the day, were an attempt to address some of these issues in the public sphere. Imperfect, yes, but it never had a chance to run its course. (Also, more often than not the institutions who were responsible for implementing said programs did so reluctantly at best and the programs were constantly threatened with funding cuts.) 

The repeal of Prop 209 means we can start the discussion again and hopefully that discussion and debate will be viewed through a 21st-century lens. Things have changed since the 1970s, progress has been made, but there is much more to do. These are the general parameters of the discussion and newly designed affirmative action programs that consider history, the current data, demographics and new ideas will be needed and forged (hammered out, won’t be easy).

One last point of misunderstanding among some of our Asian American organizations. For the most part America honors and rewards merit, but is not a meritocracy. In a meritocracy, the individual and their success is the focus. America is a democracy, so the greater good is the end goal. 

Consequently it’s not about raising just your boat, it’s about raising ALL boats.


Warren Furutani has served as a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, and California State Assembly. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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