I’m Asian American, and I’m voting Yes on Proposition 16. I know that may seem contrary to stories out there about Asian American opposition to affirmative action, but the reality goes far beyond stereotypical narratives. In fact, there are many Asian Americans who support Prop 16 for very good reasons.
The Prop 16 ballot measure would restore affirmative action in public education, employment, and contracting. By repealing Prop 209, Prop 16 would allow state and local entities here in California to implement race-conscious affirmative action programs once again.
Prop 16 extends far beyond undergraduate admissions in higher education, which has occupied much of the public discourse on affirmative action. In this context, Asian Americans have become the mascot of anti-affirmative action campaigns, arguing that Asian Americans would be harmed in college admissions, and corralling Chinese Americans to sue universities for their affirmative action programs. Yet, in reality, Asian American attitudes about affirmative action vary, and surveys show a majority of Asian Americans do support affirmative action, myself included.
I also support affirmative action as a health advocate. Asian Americans lean progressive as a voting base, which means they are largely interested in improving and expanding access to health care. The majority of Asian Americans believe health care is a very or extremely important issue this election season and that the government should expand health coverage to all people regardless of immigration status.
Affirmative action has its place in the progressive health care agenda.
The health care system involves public education, employment, and contracting—three areas where Prop 16 would restore affirmative action. Take for example, the six University of California medical schools. These are training grounds for California’s future health care workforce, and hubs of medical innovation. We need a racially diverse medical student body to have a physician workforce that provides culturally competent care to our communities. We also need a racially diverse medical student body to train researchers who will conduct studies that take into account non-White subjects and replace outdated racist models.
Despite the current existence of diversity programs in each UC medical school, UC San Diego had only 13 Latinx students out of an entering class of 134 students, and UC Irvine had five Black students and seven Latinx students out of a class of 104 students. Together, Black, Latinx, and Native American faculty make up only about 8% of U.S. academic medical centers, a rate that has stayed just about the same since Prop 209 was passed nearly 25 years ago in California. These statistics are widely disproportionate with the state’s demographics, where Latinx people comprise 39% of the state population, Black people are 7%, and Native Americans are 2%.
Prop 16 would allow UC medical schools to target outreach and recruitment directly to Black, Latinx, and Native American groups, as well as underrepresented Asian American ethnicities, and allow the schools to consider race explicitly in their student admissions and faculty hiring. This does not mean admissions and hiring criteria will be lowered for certain racial and ethnic groups, and it does not mean quotas will be set aside for certain groups.
The Medi-Cal program is another health care example. Government contracting is a large source of income and jobs in communities; the California Department of Health Care Services contracts with third-party vendors to operate significant parts of Medi-Cal. Minority-owned businesses face several structural barriers in winning procurement bids, like having less working capital and the ability to meet high insurance bonding requirements, and existing in different social networks.
Prop 209 made it unlawful in California to run race-conscious government procurement programs that would remove some of these structural barriers. Without repealing Prop 209, the state remains unable to directly target outreach and set contracting targets for minority-owned businesses. The Equal Justice Society estimates a $1 billion to $1.1 billion loss per year for women and minority business enterprises due to Prop 209.
Medi-Cal contracting also involves services for building and maintaining IT systems, evaluating medical billing claims, and creating consumer outreach material, among other functions. Under Prop 209, contracts continue to be awarded to primarily white-owned and operated corporations. In April 2020, the state selected Deloitte in a $12.1 million bid as the vendor to develop the new CalSAWS system, a statewide IT system that would centralize case management for all welfare programs including Medi-Cal. Deloitte beat out minority-operated businesses such as Alluma, which offered costs at half the rate of Deloitte. Similarly, DHCS has consistently selected the behemoth government contracting service, MAXIMUS Federal Services, Inc. to administer many Medi-Cal functions.
By examining how affirmative action could create a more equitable health care system, it becomes clear that there is so much more to the affirmative action debate than Asian American undergraduate admissions. Affirmative action impacts economic opportunities for all underrepresented minorities. Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American businesses stand to benefit, as do racial and ethnic minorities working in government. Affirmative action also impacts who designs our health care systems and who works in the health care system. This, in turn, determines the medical treatment available for different communities.
So many of us are outraged by the racial disparities unveiled by the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Asian American families, alongside other families of color, have lost grandparents to the virus in nursing homes, and we worry for family members who continue to report to low-wage jobs without PPE and regular testing. Low-income Black and Latinx Californians are dying at higher rates than high-income white Californians. These health disparities, as much as they are tied to disparities in underlying conditions, are tied to poverty, a direct function of income and wealth. Better health care and better job opportunities are the solutions we need to create a more equitable California. Prop 16 offers one solution in that direction.
Many of us, including myself, were not of voting age in 1996 when Prop 209 was passed. Or, we might have voted for it without realizing its ramifications in the ensuing decades and during a global pandemic. We’ve arrived at a moment now and we should take it head on: vote Yes on Prop 16.
Go to https://voteyesonprop16.org/why-prop-16 for more information and read the text of the proposed law. Learn more about the longstanding work of the Equal Justice Society to repeal Prop 209 and restore affirmative action in California. View more resources and actions to take with Chinese for Affirmative Action.