Affirmative action is on the ballot in California. The split between me and my Korean parents shows how big the generational divide on the issue is among Asian Americans.

  • California voters are deciding on the reinstatement of affirmative action as they cast their ballots on Proposition 16.
  • A majority of Asian-Americans support Prop. 16, despite outspoken dissent by a few prominent Asian-American groups.
  • Asian-American students, incorrectly lumped together as a monolith, must grapple with the model minority myth and proven admissions discrimination.
  • In reality, Asian-Americans are the most divided economic racial group in America, with widely varying levels of educational attainment
  • Iris Kim is a writer and recent USC graduate living in Los Angeles.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

During these upcoming weeks, California voters are revisiting a controversial ballot measure: Proposition 16, which would effectively reinstate affirmative action to California colleges and government agencies.

As many in the nation protested against systemic racism and police brutality, California state legislators pushed forward with the attempt to repeal Proposition 209, which has prohibited affirmative action in admissions, hiring, and contracting by government agencies and institutions on the basis of race or sex since its passage in 1996.

In 2014, similar efforts were made to reverse Prop. 209, but the measure was withdrawn after it faced strong opposition spearheaded by organizations such as the Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation, Chinese Americans for Progress and Equality, and the Chinese Alliance for Equality. 

This time, however, Prop. 16 has drawn vocal support from both state legislative leaders and most members of the Asian and Pacific Islander caucus, propelled by the current societal movement's demands for racial justice.

Though affirmative action is supported by the majority of Asian-American voters, Prop. 16 has been met with fierce backlash from the same notable Chinese American associations that blocked efforts to repeal Prop. 209 in 2014.

A Change.org petition has been circulating since March to mobilize the "No on Prop. 16" campaign. The petition accompanies a widely-forwarded yet unfounded message propagated by the groups warning that passing Prop. 16 will implement a quota system for Asian Americans, lowering the percentage of admitted applicants from 40% to 15%. 

My parents, who are concerned that this alleged quota will soon affect my 11-year-old little brother, have also signed the petition, despite my objections.

Asian-American parents like mine, who are recent transplants in America, may lack contextual knowledge about America's inequitable school funding along acute race and class lines. Without this awareness, it's understandable that my parents do not fully comprehend the need for affirmative action policies and are instantly influenced by the "No on Prop. 16" campaign's misguided claim that my little brother may face a disadvantage simply due to our Korean heritage. 

Despite the evidence that Asian American admission rates have, in actuality, slightly decreased since Prop. 209 was passed, the misleading tactics of the "No on Prop. 16" campaign warn parents in Korean communities to imagine a future where Asian Americans in California's public universities will be penalized to make room for "less-achieving" minority groups.

The actual effects of Prop. 209 on college admissions have been widely debated

Prop. 209 has been largely criticized for reducing the number of admitted students from underrepresented groups (URG's) at California system schools, especially Black and Hispanic students.

However, the elimination of affirmative action has also produced some meaningful positive developments. No longer able to point to URG college admissions numbers as a proof of racial inclusion, the UC system has been forced to address the root causes of why admissions for underrepresented groups dropped following Prop. 209. 

Prop. 209 has motivated the UC's to invest heavily in bottom-up outreach, expanding funding for access programs to prepare younger elementary, middle school, and high school students from underfunded districts to become competitive UC applicants by the time they are eligible to apply. 

Asian Americans are paradoxically both underrepresented and overrepresented

Admissions at highly-ranked colleges is a uniquely paradoxical area for Asian-American representation. Though Asian Americans make up 5.6% of the US population, they are underrepresented in Hollywood, corporate board rooms, and politics. But at the same time they are overrepresented in the student bodies of elite college institutions.

This representation paradox is most evident in the racial breakdown of 2019 UC system admitted students. Despite the state population being 38% Latino, 36% white, 15% Asian, and 6% black, in 2019, UC system admits were 30% Asian, 24% Latino, 22% white, and 5% black. Asian Americans are not considered an underrepresented group by the UC Board of Regents. 

Asian American over-representation in California's public universities is due to a number of factors. The most apparent is the selective immigration of highly skilled and educated Asian immigrant groups: a majority of the current Asian-American population wave followed the Immigration Acts of 1965 and 1990, which gave preferential immigration and citizenship pathways for skilled workers and their families.

This statistical sleight of hand gave rise to the model minority myth, a fiction white conservatives opportunistically constructed in order to minimize the struggles of other racial groups. The myth represents Asians as a monolithic success story without acknowledging the disparities among Asian Americans and the selective immigration process that gave opportunities to families like my own.

The model minority myth hurts both disadvantaged and high-income Asian-American students 

Asian Americans are also overrepresented on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to educational attainment and income level. They are both more likely than the overall US population to not have a high school diploma, and more likely than the US average to have a four-year college degree.

As the most divided economic racial group in America, they span an considerable income range, with the wealthiest 10% of Asian Americans earning almost 11 times the amount of the poorest 10%. 

Despite these disparities, the model minority myth creates the presumption that all Asian Americans come from high-income backgrounds or are high achievers. This illusion is detrimental to lower-income Asians.

Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese students, despite having significantly lower college-going and four-year graduation rates than the US average and other Asian ethnicities, are overlooked during resource allocation. Because Asian Americans as a whole are overrepresented in California's public universities, these students do not qualify for the same diversity initiatives targeting their Black, Hispanic, and Native American peers. 

Even higher-income Asian American students are damaged differently by the myth — inwardly, they report feeling intense self-imposed academic pressure, and outwardly, they are expected to naturally academically excel and fit the societal stereotype of the "studious Asian." This intense dual pressure can lead to mental health issues and suicide clusters such as those that have plagued majority-Asian and affluent Bay Area suburbs. 

To further complicate the narrative, there is undeniable evidence of the discriminatory stereotyping of Asian-American applicants. Asian-American students are consistently given lower "personal ratings" of likability, kindness, and courage and described as  "textureless math grinds" who "looked like a thousand other Korean kids with the exact same…temperament."

These portrayals dangerously dehumanize Asian American students as a faceless, soulless robotic mass and not as applicants with their own individualized agencies and identities. 

It's not yet certain how Prop. 16 will affect Asian-American applicants, and it may take years to assess the numbers

Perhaps my parent's concerns are valid — the passage of Prop. 16 could mean that being part of the overrepresented Asian American racial group may work as a minor penalty against my little brother someday. But the historical evidence suggests otherwise. It's not apparent yet what the actual impact of Prop. 16 will be if passed, and we may never fully know, considering the inscrutable nature of the admissions process. 

Despite my admitted concerns about the implementation of Prop. 16, I still staunchly believe in the need for race-conscious admissions to uplift students of color from races that have historically faced discrimination — including students who are Asian American.

My only hope is that, if Prop. 16 is passed, California's public universities will continue to address the embedded inequities in our K-12 education system, account for the broad disparities within Asian America, and carefully consider — without bias or prejudice — the unique stories of each Asian-American applicant.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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