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Demystifying ACA-5

Kristina Yin

Demystifying ACA-5
an article by Kristina Yin

Edit: For the argument that ACA-5 is unconstitutional, please refer to the Supreme Court decision Gutter v. Gullinger, which ruled that each admissions decision is based on multiple factors, and that University of Michigan Law School could fairly use race as one of them. The case reaffirmed the court’s position that diversity on campus is a compelling state interest for Michigan.

Edit 2: ACA-5 is now a ballot measure, Proposition 16! Remember to register to vote and support Prop 16 this November!

Dear Asian Youth,

What is ACA-5?

ACA-5, or the Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, is a California constitutional amendment that repeals Proposition 209, which had prohibited the state of California from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, or nationality specifically in public education and employment. At first sight, Prop 209 seems to make sense - no one should be treated differently based on race, sex, etc. but the situation is complicated on the grounds that prop was specifically introduced to repeal affirmative action in UC schools.

After Prop 209 was passed and ‘race-neutral’ admissions began, the likelihood of applicants from underrepresented groups being enrolled into at least once UC campus decreased by 7%. Most dramatically, the enrollment of underrepresented groups fell by more than 60% at Berkeley and UCLA campuses. The end of affirmative action in California led to a 1.4 percentage decline in all underrepresented applicants’ likelihood of earning a Bachelor’s degree.

As the University of California President Janet Napolitano put it, "It makes little sense to exclude any consideration of race in admissions when the aim of the University’s holistic process is to fully understand and evaluate each applicant through multiple dimensions. Proposition 209 has forced California public institutions to try to address racial inequality without factoring in race, even where allowed by federal law. The diversity of our university and higher education institutions across California, should — and must — represent the rich diversity of our state." Recently, the University of California Board of Regents unanimously endorsed ACA-5.

What is the controversy?

There are a lot of myths surrounding ACA-5, so I will attempt to dispel them first before addressing more relevant reasons for opposition.

First off, ACA-5 does more than just help minority students, it also has benefits for women and for minorities in businesses and employment. For example, this policy would allow California to have specific initiatives that help out Asian-owned businesses that been effected by COVID19-related racism, which is impossible under Prop 209.

I have seen this statistic thrown around in social media: “the number of Asians able to attend UC colleges will be reduced from 42% to 12%” as a result of ACA-5. After thorough research, I cannot find any credible resource on where this ‘12%’ came from. I was able to track it down to an Instagram account called @asianstudentsatrisk (used to be named @asianstudentmatter), whose post stated “The ACA-5 bill will limit the number of Asian students that can get admitted into college. Only 12% of Asians can enroll into UC Universities. This means that less qualified students will take the spots of Asian students! This is racism!” While racism towards Asian-Americans does exist in many aspects of society, I do not think this counts.

First off, when Prop 209 was introduced, the rate of admissions for Asian Americans at the University of California system has actually decreased, except for UC Riverside. Therefore, race-blind admissions did not help Asian-Americans as proponents of Prop 209 might believe. I also want to quell any worries by sharing that the Supreme Court has already made it illegal to use racial quotas or caps. ACA-5 will not, in any way, limit the number of Asian students admitted to UC schools. Furthermore, UC campuses take in 14 different factors of an applicant, including but not limited to GPA, socio-economic status, and special talents - race and ethnicity will just be introduced as two of the many dimensions of an applicant’s background. Meaning, you will not be denied admission because of your race. I would even say that ACA-5 will benefit many Asian-Americans as it allows Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, statistically more underprivileged than East Asians, to be considered separately from the Asian monolith as race AND ethnicity become important criteria for consideration. The concerns raised by @asianstudentsatrisk are unfounded and frankly, the language used by the account is ignorant at best. It is incredibly insulting to automatically consider students who are non-Asian as “less qualified.”

The account @asianstudentsatrisk has also put out another post using Harvard as an example of how affirmative action lowers the acceptance rates for Asian students. I want to point out that the article cited as the source for the information of the post is an opinion article and should not be regarded as journalistic evidence. However, I do think the article is legitimate in its concern at how exactly Harvard considers its minority applicants - just not in the way the writer thinks. I do not consider affirmative action as the actual reason why Asian-Americans are discriminated against in Harvard admissions, especially when there are more convincing alternative arguments. I think the problem with the Harvard admissions process is actually 1. implicit bias and 2. legacy enrollment. According to a 2015 Pew Research report, two Implicit Association Tests studies showed that 50% of white subjects tested held subconscious preferences for other whites over Asian Americans, and 48% of white subjects held subconscious preferences for other whites over African Americans. Therefore, the implicit bias of interviewers, teachers responsible for recommendation letters, etc. could be to blame for low personality ratings.

The actual threat to fair admissions at Harvard is the strong preference for legacy applicants, who tend to be white. According to this research article from the Asian American Law Journal, more than 1 out 5 white applicants to Harvard 2010 and 2015 were legacies, and the number of white legacy students admitted to Harvard exceeds the number of African Americans, Hispanic, and Asian-American legacy students combined. Legacy admissions have essentially become “affirmative action for whites” (privileged white students, I might add) especially given that Harvard’s admissions program grants legacy applicants a 40% point boost over the much smaller 9% point boost for low-income students. Given the unlevel playing field, no wonder high-achieving Asian-Americans are not given a fair chance. Therefore, the situation of Harvard and the situation of the University of California are not equitable. Now, finally, we can go over more relevant concerns.

Senator Ling Ling Chang, who represents District 29, offered this take: "I have experienced racial discrimination so I know what that’s like. But the answer to racial discrimination is not more discrimination which is what this bill proposes. The answer is to strengthen our institutions by improving our education system so all students have access to a quality education, and give opportunities to those who are economically disadvantaged. ACA 5 legalizes racial discrimination and that’s wrong." Fundamentally, I agree that America’s whole K-12 system needs an overhaul to better support its underprivileged students. Furthermore, I do worry that affirmative action is not enough, especially given that colleges might offer an intellectual rigor that students are not ready for. However, I am a firm believer that affirmative action is at least the right step forward. Underrepresented students should have a chance to improve their own circumstances. As colleges are crucial for students to receive quality training and to be career-ready, it is absolutely imperative that these colleges are open to underrepresented students.

I have also heard of the argument that affirmative action should be based on economic status instead of race. For this, I have to say that the UC system already considers a student’s socioeconomic status. Furthermore, one’s race and ethnicity are integral parts of what one’s experience in America will be like: i.e., having to learn a new language, facing discrimination, etc. Racism doesn’t discriminate by class - wealthy and unwealthy minority students still experience racism. In order to have a holistic view of a student, how can you not consider their racial and ethnic background, especially since they are a part of one’s identity? Just as color-blindness is counterproductive as it ignores discrimination, race-neutral admissions do the same. Just as a reminder, under ACA-5, an applicant will not be denied admission just due to their race.

Some have also considered policies like affirmative action to be a threat to meritocracy. In ideal circumstances, it is correct to believe that the ‘most ideal’ candidate should be enrolled. However, we do not live in ideal circumstances. America as a whole does not give equal opportunity to its citizens, making it very difficult for underrepresented students to reach the ‘idealness’ of more privileged students. Therefore, to not do anything and to keep Prop 209 perpetuates a cycle of barring opportunities to those that need it the most. Just as bandaging a wound won’t do much until you disinfect the wound first, we need to take active steps to right the wrongs of the past.

How can we support ACA-5?

I hope that I have at least presented compelling arguments. We can make sure that ACA-5 becomes a reality by signing petitions and contacting our representatives (this link provides a nice template, just change out ‘your organization’ to yourself and change the contact details as needed). You can also join and support organizations such as Chinese for Affirmative Action and Opportunity for All Coalition. The @asianstudentsatrisk account has also endorsed a petition on to block ACA-5. If you have signed it, please consider revoking your signature (here are instructions on how to do so). Moving forward, I think it is important to keep a critical eye on ACA-5 once it is passed and to make sure it is implemented correctly. But above all, we really can’t afford ACA-5 to flop.

- Kristina Yin

More resources:

National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education,

California Legislative Information

The Daily Californian: Berkeley’s News, “CA Should Pass ACA 5, end Prop. 209

BallotPedia, California Repeal Proposition 209 Affirmative Action Amendment (2020)

Edsource, “In historic reversal, University of California regents endorse push to end ban on affirmative action”

University of California, “The impact of Proposition 209 on under-represented UC applicants, and the effect of subsequent UC admission policies on URG enrollment”

University of California, How applications are reviewed

The Washington Post, The Forgotten Minorities of Higher Education

Asian American Law Journal, Redux: Arguing About Asian Americans and Affirmative Action at Harvard After Fisher

The Civil Rights Project, Asian Americans and Race-Conscious Admissions: Understanding the Conservative Opposition’s Strategy of Misinformation, Intimidation and Racial Division

Pew Research Center, Exploring Racial Bias Among Biracial and Single-Race Adults: The IAT

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