Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why a minority opposes affirmative action

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: There's an old and new way of thinking about affirmative action
  • Navarrette: Some think use of racial criteria in college admission helps minorities
  • But Asian-Americans, a powerful minority in California, oppose affirmative action
  • Navarrette: The debate in California is not about "reparations," but rather "merit"

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- When it comes to thinking about affirmative action, there's an old way and a new way.

The old way was in full bloom this week at the Supreme Court, in a blistering 58-page dissenting opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in what was a state's rights case involving a 2006 Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria in publicly funded college and university admissions, and the question of whether these matters can be settled not just by courts but also by voters.

The new way is on display in California, where lawmakers who want to amend the state constitution to reinstate racial and ethnic preferences at public colleges and universities -- something that was banned by a 1996 ballot initiative -- have a formidable opponent in the form of a group that knows a little something about discrimination: Asian-Americans.

Under the old way of thinking, the narrative goes like this: There was once in this country ugly, overt and systematic discrimination based on race or ethnicity. African-Americans in the South and Mexican-Americans in the Southwest were excluded not just from barbershops, country clubs and public swimming pools, but also from places that could change the destinies of individuals and uplift families -- colleges and universities.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

There had to be a corrective device, the thinking went, by which these institutions that had previously treated race and ethnicity of certain groups as a negative could flip the script and treat it as a positive. Some people saw it as a reparation, a historical payoff. But it was more of an acknowledgment that discrimination leaves behind vestiges, and institutions that once went out of their way to be unwelcoming to certain groups now had to go out of their way to be welcoming to those groups by taking applicants' race and ethnicity into account.

This is how Sotomayor, a graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, sees the program that she has often credited for opening those doors. In her dissent in the Michigan case, part of which she read aloud to her colleagues, the nation's first Latina Supreme Court justice wrote: "This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society."

Anyone out there support racial inequality and think it ought to be preserved? I didn't think so.

Besides, this case wasn't about whether racial and ethnic preferences are good or bad, but whether their use could be restricted by voters at the state level. By a vote of 6-to-2, the high court ruled that it could be.

Meanwhile, in California, there is a group that -- like Sotomayor -- really dislikes racial inequality. So much so that they don't think it ought to be reinstated by the state legislature under the pretext of expanding educational opportunity. In Alabama or Georgia or Mississippi, the dominant racial storyline is black-and-white. But in California, the most interesting relationship -- the one that will help define the future of the nation's most populous state -- is the relationship between Latinos and Asian-Americans.

At 38% of the population, Latinos now make up a plurality in California. Yet the fastest-growing minority in the state is Asian-Americans, who now make up nearly 14% of California, or more than twice the number of African-Americans.

And just as Latinos are divided on issues such as immigration and bilingual education, so, too, are there differences of opinion among Asian-Americans when the conversation turns to affirmative action.

Still, what sends shock waves through the debate in California is that one of the most prominent subsets -- Chinese-Americans -- is opposed to the idea of colleges and universities taking into account race and ethnicity. Organizations representing that constituency pressured a small group of Asian-American lawmakers to stall the legislation. They did.

You might think that an ethnic group that holds nearly 40% of seats in the University of California system would have little to complain about.

You'd be wrong. Asian-American organizations that oppose racial and ethnic preferences claim that the 40% figure could soar to 50% or 60% if colleges and universities awarded slots based on merit. They insist that there is a quota to keep the Asian-American students below 50%, and that this primarily benefits white students who might not be able to compete head-to-head with Asian-Americans.

Welcome to affirmative action, California-style, where things get complicated. As the debate plays out in this state, you don't hear much about "reparations" or the "vestiges of discrimination." The dominant themes are "merit" and "fairness."

Those are not small things. Let's put to rest the old way of thinking about affirmative action and confront the new challenges that lie ahead in a country that, with every passing day, resembles less and less what it used to be.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT