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State Senator Helps Set Dangerous Precedent for Affirmative Action

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Ranking California Democratic State Senator Leland Yee made the news twice in recent weeks. And both times it was for the wrong thing. The first time was for his FBI bust on charges of gun running and public corruption. The second reason he was in the news potentially has far more damaging consequences. Yee was a strong supporter of Constitutional Amendment 5 that passed the California Senate last January. The bill would have given voters another chance to consider the use of race in college admissions. This could have been a direct assault on Proposition 209 passed by the voters in 1996, which banned the use of race as a factor in college admissions.

Yee loudly declared that he wanted the bill pulled after receiving an outraged letter from an Asian-American constituent group claiming that reinstituting affirmative action would do major harm to Asian-American students chances of getting admitted to state colleges and universities. Yee was unapologetic in explaining that he "would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children."

Yee shamelessly caved to one group at a moment when the legislature was poised to pass the measure. It could have served as a model for other states that have imposed various bans on affirmative action programs. The potential damage doesn't stop here. The Supreme Court is weeks away from handing down yet another possible landmark ruling on affirmative action. The case involves a challenge to Michigan's 2006 voter approved ban on the use of race- and sex-based factors to be used in admission decisions to public universities. Like California's Proposition 209, the ban was written into the state constitution.

Yee in one fell stroke gave the court and states even more ammunition to fire against affirmative action initiatives at state universities and beyond that in public employment. The ammunition is even more potent because it's now no longer just conservatives waging their relentless war against affirmative action, with their arsenal of lawsuits, ballot initiatives and administrative rulings. Now the anti-affirmative action battle is being waged by some well-heeled, vocal Asian-American advocacy groups that contend Asian students will suffer the most from affirmative action. While other Asian-American groups firmly support affirmative action programs, unfortunately they are being drowned out by the opponents.

The first warning that some Asian-American groups oppose affirmative action programs came in 2012 when four Asian-American groups filed a brief with the Supreme Court in the case involving a white woman that sued the University of Texas claiming that she was denied admission because of affirmative action. They called on the justices to bar all race-based admissions decisions. Their brief upped the ante in the fight in that they didn't simply call for tailoring or modifying affirmative action programs to insure fairness. They demanded that race not be used in any way as a consideration in university admissions.

The charge that Asian-Americans would and are getting the short end of the admissions stick from affirmative action doesn't hold up. Asian-American students already make up a disproportionate number of students at many public universities. According to university figures, at the University of Texas they make up 16 percent of the university enrollees though they are only 4 percent of the state's population. The figures there are typical of their enrollment at many public universities where Asian-American students make up double-digit numbers of the student population.

The great fear of the anti-affirmative action Asian-American groups though is not that so few are getting into universities because of affirmative action. But that fewer Asian students would get in if affirmative action programs were put back on the table. They assert that they'd lose out to packs of supposedly unqualified or less qualified black and Latino students. This is nothing more than a rehash of the old quota or reverse bias argument that's been used for years by conservatives to thwart affirmative action.

Quotas have long since been ruled illegal. Despite popular myth even before the imposition of Proposition 209 in California there was never a quota system that mandated a set number of blacks and Hispanic students be admitted at any California university or state college. Race, then, was simply used as one of several factors that could be considered in a student's admission. Asian-American students at the universities in those days could hardly considered to be underrepresented. They made up less than 10 percent of California's state population but nearly 20 percent of the students at the colleges.

Yee did not cite any of these arguments in calling for the scrap of the bill. He and the Democrats that bowed to pressure from some Asian groups did grave harm by giving added fodder to the bitter opponents from legislators to Supreme Court justices that are bound and determined to do away with all programs that help all underserved minorities, and that includes Asian-Americans. That's a dangerous precedent he helped set.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: