In summary

We need policies that recognize and affirm who we are as Asian American and Pacific Islander people to remedy ongoing and new disparities.

By Sally Chen, Special to CaMatters

Sally Chen graduated from Harvard University in 2019, [email protected] She testified in favor of affirmative action in the 2019 trial involving Harvard’s race-conscious admissions, and she is currently the Economic Justice Program Manager at Chinese for Affirmative Action. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

I spent my final years at Harvard studying hard and working hard to fight for race conscious admissions policies there. After graduating last year, I returned home to California as another conversation about affirmative action was emerging with Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5.

I grew up in San Francisco as the daughter of working-class Chinese immigrant parents. From a young age I learned to be an advocate for my family, especially for my parents who are not native English speakers. Growing up Chinese American and being the child of immigrant parents shaped me as a full person. So I wanted to write about this in my college application essay. 

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A number of well-meaning people tried to discourage me from doing so, pointing to the myth that affirmative action in admissions at schools like Harvard somehow hurts Asian American students.

The top universities here at home in California – like the University of California, Berkeley or UCLA – would not have been able to consider my experiences as a Chinese American the way that Harvard did, due to the limitations of Proposition 209.

Under California’s problematic Prop. 209, public colleges and universities have been banned from considering race as one of dozens of factors for admission for nearly 25 years. The reality is that after Prop. 209 went into effect in 1996, the admission rate of Asian American and Pacific Isander students to UC schools dropped. Universities outside California that practice affirmative action have seen bigger gains in the rate of AAPI students enrolled. Until we repeal Prop. 209, AAPI students in California are at a disadvantage.

My race is an essential part of who I am – both in my pride as a Chinese American and in the very real challenges my family and I have faced because of it. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made that hit home even more. AAPI people have experienced a surge in anti-Asian discrimination and violence. Chinese restaurants – like the one where my father worked for 30 years – and other businesses owned by AAPI people have been devastated. Asian Americans in San Francisco, where my family and I live, face dramatically higher mortality rates from COVID-19.

Now more than ever, we need policies that recognize and affirm who we are as AAPI people in order to remedy ongoing and new disparities. Restoring affirmative action in higher education is the bare minimum of what California should do to ensure opportunity for all. We also need to invest in small businesses and eliminate discrimination in government hiring. ACA 5 does just that too.

Imagine the experiences of Asian American high school students who are planning for their college applications in the years ahead, where they will be asked about the challenges they have faced and the barriers they have overcome. If those students wanted to write about anti-Asian harassment they faced during the pandemic or the devastation of a family business, under Prop. 209, UC and California State University schools wouldn’t be able to consider these factors.

Without a doubt there will always be a small but vocal group of people who are opposed to opportunity for all. But the reality is that the vast majority of Asian Americans support the race conscious policies of affirmative action, as found in a 2018 survey. That’s because our communities benefit when the fact that we are Asian American can be seen, recognized and considered. This includes in higher education admissions, employment and government contracts.

The Legislature has the opportunity to pass ACA 5 this year to do just that. What’s more, given the devastating racial disparities for black, Latinx and AAPI communities, passing ACA 5 should be a mandate as a part of our state’s recovery from this pandemic.

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Sally Chen graduated from Harvard University in 2019, [email protected]. She testified in favor of affirmative action in the 2019 trial involving Harvard’s race-conscious admissions, and she is currently the Economic Justice Program Manager at Chinese for Affirmative Action. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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