(SOURCE: THE FOREIGN DESK RECORDS OF THE NEW YORK TIMES ARCHIVES AT THE BROOKE RUSSELL ASTOR READING ROOM OF THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY.)
Written by Phung Huynh
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
― Toni Morrison
I have heard it so many times before, the drone set on academic repeat, that “it is not fair.” Students who have worked so hard to obtain good grades to get into choice universities are not admitted, while students without the same level of academic performance are admitted based on race. What I find “not fair” is the system that refuses to recognize Black and Brown students as whole and the system’s entrenched relationship with structural racism. Aggregated data across multiple educational institutions show that equity gaps in achievement and access disproportionately affect our Black and Brown students. The original design of colleges and universities in the United States was not intended for working class populations or for students of color. The four-year plan in higher education is best suited for students who have access to financial wealth that would enable them to focus on scholarship without having to work, and for students who can achieve high scores on standardized tests that are culturally and racially biased, centered on whiteness. In 1996, the state of California passed Proposition 209, a legal measure that would “eliminate state and local government affirmative action programs in the areas of public employment, public education, and public contracting to the extent these programs involve ‘preferential treatment’ based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” (https://lao.ca.gov/ballot/1996/prop209_11_1996.html). Efforts to foster diversity in public programs are shut down, while legacy admissions and athletic scholarships have filled the coffers of colleges and universities, finding ways around Prop 209.
Historical amnesia is also dangerous and presents a myopic perspective on our educational systems. Our nation’s history of chattel enslavement of Black Americans, genocide and forced assimilation practices on Indigenous communities, and exploitation of immigrant labor have cascading effects that still persist today. Segregationists and white supremacist groups uphold Jim Crow laws that target Black citizens and prohibit any citizen of color to vote. The practice of redlining in cities across the country have relegated communities of color to underfunded neighborhoods which ultimately suffocate financial and educational resources that would impact generations to come. Bell schedules set to a factory clock prepare our students to get through school and to get jobs. And, at public schools where there are mostly Black and Brown students, Advanced Placement and college-preparatory course are substituted with classes in basic skills and vocation. Compound this inequitable educational structure with the ways in which Black and Brown students are disciplined, unfairly seen as more hostile than their White and Asian counterparts, and more likely subjected to suspensions and expulsions. What is deeply distressing is how such racial disparities in public education trickle down to adulthood where Black and Brown people are more vulnerable to being pulled over by police for minor infractions and biased suspicions and then ultimately to incarceration. The pipeline from schools to prisons is real.
As an Asian American with social justice values, and as an educator who believes in diversity, equity, inclusion, and access particularly for students who are disproportionately impacted, I am in support of affirmative action. It disheartens me, however, to see people in my own community who do not agree, and who prefer to be dismissive of historic oppression in favor of the model minority myth which paints a false picture of success that is obtained by people willing to “pull themselves up by their own boot straps.” The model minority stereotype positions Asians and Asian Americans in proximity to white privilege, fractures solidarity with Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, and trivializes the intense struggles and traumas experienced by such communities. And truthfully, it is not the pulling of bootstraps or a stoic work ethic that awards academic success. Rather, it is legacy and access to supportive college counselors, expensive tutors, SAT preparatory courses, and in some instances, bribery. As we have seen recently in many cases of wealthy parents involved in college admission scandals across the nation who are willing to lie and pay upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars, it is clear that our educational system is broken and favors the most elite.
The last four years have been a major undoing of progressive measures, and this time when November finally is at our doorsteps, we cannot sleep on Proposition 16. By voting yes on Prop 16, we would reverse the Prop 209 ban on affirmative action, and equal opportunity policies will be restored so that we can support public programs that provide access to excellent education for all Californians. By voting yes on Prop 16, Californians can mobilize to end discrimination by valuing diversity and fairness and actively confront structural racism and sexism. California is one of only nine states that outlaw equal opportunity policies such as affirmative action in hiring and education. We can no longer afford to trail behind. Affirmative action is an effective way to foster diversity in schools and the workplace which ultimately creates inclusive communities that uphold values that respect different cultures and ideas equitably. Affirmative action addresses how disadvantaged people who come from marginalized communities can have a fair chance to prosper and succeed. And, in regard to college admissions, affirmative action will set a framework that values a diverse student body and allows university officials to consider the whole person, including each individual’s unique background and life experiences, when making admission decisions. The outcomes of such decisions will result in expansive educational benefits from a student body that is diverse on multiple dimensions, with a capacity for academic excellence and ability to create a campus community in which each student gains the opportunity to learn from peers with a wide range of academic interests, perspectives, and talents.
For me, Prop 16 is personal. I am a Vietnamese refugee of Cambodian and Chinese descent. The American War in Vietnam rendered my original homeland an impossible place to live, much less survive. After the war’s end in 1975, a Gallup poll asked Americans whether immigration laws should be amended so that Southeast Asian refugees could resettle in the United States. Fifty-seven percent of Americans who participated in the poll opposed the idea. However, Black civil rights leaders advocated for Southeast Asian refugees such as myself. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. opposed the war in Vietnam and called to community members to protest the war after conversations with the exiled Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh who asked for his solidarity. Bayard Rustin, a Black and gay civil rights leader, was part of the International Rescue Committee’s Citizens Commission on Indochinese Refugees. In 1978, Rustin visited refugee camps in Thailand and actively listened to Cambodian, Hmong, Lao, and Vietnamese refugees who were displaced. Rustin’s efforts convinced President Carter to support a policy that provided resettlement to Southeast Asian refugees who had been turned away in other countries. The largest hurdle for Rustin in supporting Southeast Asian refugees was shifting public opinion through national organizing. He persuaded Black civil rights and community leaders such as Coretta Scott King, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Daisy Bates to publicly support the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees. They paid for a full-page ad in the March 19, 1978 issue of The New York Times, asking for donations for the International Rescue Committee, aligning the plight of refugees to those of poor Black Americans. That same year, my family and I resettled in the United States.
By turning my back on Prop 16, I am turning my back on the very people who fought hard for me and my family to be here. The most important voice we have is the power to vote. During a pandemic, we see equity gaps widen exponentially with impact that disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities in California and nationwide. If you are an advocate for social and racial justice, Prop 16 is a critical piece of legislation that will help in the efforts to eradicate institutional racism and injustice. If you have that power, use it. If you have that power, share it.
- Understanding Systemic Racism
2. Asian solidarity for black lives
3. Model Minority
4. Prop 16
5. Higher Education for Black Californians
6. Racial Disparities in School Discipline and the Pipeline to Incarceration
This article represents the views and opinions of the author solely and does not express the opinions of all ARC members.
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