California will have another battle over “affirmative action” this fall when the legislature puts a measure on the ballot to repeal Proposition 209, the 1996 ban on affirmative action.  While proponents claim this is an effort to redress low numbers of “underrepresented minorities” in California higher education, the impact will be to reduce the number of Asian Americans in our colleges and universities.

In 1996, when Proposition 209 passed, the University of California student body was 3.7 percent black, 13 percent Latino, 36 percent Asian and 38 percent white.  At the time an article in the Los Angeles Times noted that, “Experts predict that the University of California’s recent rollback of affirmative action admissions will increase the number of students of Asian descent on campus, because most Asian Americans do not benefit from current admissions policies, which give preference to underrepresented minorities.  Asian Americans also meet the university’s admission requirements at a higher rate than any other group.”

That happened, but perhaps not as dramatically as anticipated.  By 2018, the student body was still 3.7 percent black, but now 40 percent Asian.  But Latinos also increased their percentage to 26 percent, while whites fell to 20 to 22 percent.

So in the quarter century of no affirmative action, the UC population actually came to more closely represent the state’s demographics.  Today the undrer-18 population is five percent black, so little change there.  It is now only 27 percent white, so the drop in white enrollment.   It is 52 percent Latino, and Latinos have rapidly entered the middle class since 1996, and as a result the percent of Latinos at UC campuses has doubled to 26 percent.

But the Asian percentages are the most dramatic, 40 percent of the UC enrollment.  According to the Lucille Packard Foundation Asians account for only 11 percent of under-18 Californians.  The overall Asian population in California is estimated at about 14 percent of the total population. 

Over these past decades, the UC system and liberal politicians have tied themselves in knots over what they called “underrepresented minorities.”  Strictly speaking that should include whites who attend the UC schools at slightly below their ethnic percentages, but it is limited to blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, who are also at below their percentages.

But this can only be rectified by reducing the percentage of Asians in our colleges.  Affirmative action only works if you can somehow quota Asians applicants, as at onetime the “Jewish quota” was used to reduce the percentage of Jewish students at the Ivy League schools.

However, to do this in California brings up the ugliest part of our state’s racial history, the “Yellow Peril” that was far more discriminatory against Asians than any other racial group.

The “Yellow Peril” was the belief that hoards of East Asians were threatening to overrun America’s white Christian civilization.  This was especially true here in California following the Gold Rush that had seen massive importation of Chinese workers.  

Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, wrote of the Chinese: “The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order.”

Views like these led to the passage in 1882 of the Chinese Exclusion Act that forbad immigration of Chinese and remained American law until the 1940s.  California went to even greater extremes, forcing our Chinese population into ghettos like the San Francisco and Los Angeles Chinatowns.  San Francisco even prohibited Chinese from owning laundries in that city, which led to one of the first civil rights cases in American history, Yick Wo v Hopkins (1886) in which the US Supreme Court ruled that laundries could not be closed down just because Chinese owned them. 

 Chinese are also the only race enshrined in the California Constitution, to make certain they could not be employed: “No corporation now existing or hereafter formed under the laws of this State, shall, after the adoption of this Constitution, employ directly or indirectly, in any capacity, any Chinese or Mongolian.”  Guess the Founding Fathers in 1879 worried about Mongolians slipping into the country along with the Chinese.  

Having dealt with the Chinese part of the Yellow Peril, California then turned to the Japanese.  In 1913, the legislature, by a vote of 72 to three in the Assembly and 35 to two in the Senate, passed the Alien Land Act, which prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” (read that as Japanese) from owning agricultural land.  In the 1930s, California’s attorney general spent much of his time prosecuting Japanese immigrants who were trying to put their land in the names of their American born children.

Certainly, the most famous manifestation of the Yellow Peril was the incarceration of Japanese Americans in rural camps beginning in 1942.  This action was upheld by the US Supreme Court in the famous Korematsu v. US decision in 1944.  That decision was not formally overturned by the US Supreme Court until 2018.  The Alien Land Act remained on the books in California until 1952 and was still being enforced after World War II.

So our history shows only one instance of systemic and legal discrimination by race: that against Asians.  The real threat of the Yellow Peril was that Asians worked hard, and it took many years to overcome this discrimination.  Higher education is much the same, Asian high school kids work harder, and so they make it into the best universities. 

Even though Asians were the victims of the greatest examples of racism in California history, and were specifically single out for discrimination in the first Constitution, they don’t count as protected minorities.  In fact, affirmative action clearly discriminates against Californians of Asian descent.  UC Regent Chairman John Perez seemed to acknowledge this in calling on the Regents to endorse the new affirmative action: “If we are going to be serious about creating a university that truly serves the public interest, we cannot be silent. We cannot be neutral.”  He’s right; neutrality in university admissions means more Asian admissions, just as predicted in 1996.

Given the already low percentages of whites in the entering classes, it is impossible to squeeze more places out of the white student body.  The only way a new affirmative action will increase the numbers of black and Latino student is at the expense of Asians.  There is simply no other way.

Perhaps we should have a debate this fall over whether the new affirmative action is really a genteel 21st Century version of the old Yellow Peril, albeit without the racist rhetoric, but sadly with the same results.