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Friction lingers among Asian-Americans over affirmative action debate

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed the annual CAUSE dinner. Affirmative action wasn't on the agenda, but the debate simmered on the sidelines.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed the annual CAUSE dinner. Affirmative action wasn't on the agenda, but the debate simmered on the sidelines.
Frank Stoltze

Last Friday, just about everybody who is anybody in Asian-American politics gathered at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The occasion was the annual benefit dinner for the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE), a non-partisan group that works to develop leaders and register voters.

The speakers included Congressman Mike Honda of Palo Alto, perhaps the dean of Asian-American politicians in California, and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

But among the inspirational stories of political empowerment, you heard nothing about the hottest issue in Asian-American politics these days: the fight over affirmative action.

“A lot of people are privately talking about it,” said CAUSE Chairman Charlie Woo, a big political donor to Asian-American politicians. (He also sits on the KPCC board of directors.)

Earlier this year, some Asian-American state legislators, all of them Democrats, angered fellow Democrats when they opposed a measure that would have asked voters to restore affirmative action at California’s public universities. They’d come under intense pressure from some Chinese Americans who feared their children would have a harder time getting accepted into university.

In response, six black and Latino legislators withdrew their endorsement of State Senator Ted Lieu, who is running to succeed Henry Waxman in Congress. Sixteen legislators withheld their support of a bill unrelated to affirmative action by Assembly member Al Muratsuchi.

“I think Asian-American legislators have taken a bum rap,” Woo said. “The community pressure on them was so great.”

Some legislators in Sacramento accused their Asian-American colleagues of abandoning their commitment to diversity. That offends political consultant Bill Wong.

“I was hoping people would have a more reasoned discussion before they cast aspersions,” said Wong, who supports affirmative action. "I was a bit surprised."

The seasoned Sacramento consultant places some blame on term limits. People serve less time together in the legislature than they once did, and don’t know each other as well. Its easier to “cast aspersions.”

He said Republicans seeking to woo Asian-Americans to the GOP delighted in the rift over a “classic wedge issue.”

Wong noted the Asian-American community is divided over affirmative action. “There are some that have benefited from affirmative action, and others that may be disadvantaged by it.”

“It’s a no win situation,” said Rosemead City Councilwoman Polly Low, who opposes bringing affirmative action back to public universities.  “It just pisses people off.”

“Unfortunately, it also created some racial tension,” she said. “It's sad.”

Some leaders are seeking to repair relations among Asian-Americans who differ on the issue, and between Asian-American legislators and their colleagues in Sacramento.

“We have a lot of work to do to bring some healing,” said Stewart Kwoh, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. He supports affirmative action.

“I think the way to do that is to explain that it is not a quota system,” he said. Kwoh traveled to Sacramento last week to discuss the issue with lawmakers. He is urging people to come together to fight for more money for higher education.

“That’s how we find common ground,” he said. “So that we can expand opportunities for all, especially the underserved.”

The debate over affirmative action has left some Asian Americans feeling they are too often expected to bow to the wishes of other communities. "Our organizations are the first to compromise," said Ron Wong, president of Imprenta Communications, a Los Angeles-based political consulting group. He said the community is incredibly diverse, with many languages and cultures that should be respected.

"To put us in a box is kind of unfair to the community and the political leaders," said Wong, who supports affirmative action.

The topic remains too hot for some politicians. Approached for comment at the CAUSE dinner, State Controller John Chiang — the highest-ranking elected Asian American in California — said he only comments on financial matters. “I comment on other issues selectively,” he added.

Congressman Honda reminded a reporter that in Chinese calligraphy, the word crisis is actually two words.

“Danger and opportunity,” he said.