Until this month, supporters of racial preferences in California have enjoyed a cozy narrative. They were able to dismiss the 55 percent of voters who passed Proposition 209, which barred race and gender preferences in university admissions, hiring and public contracts in 1996, as over-entitled fear-obsessed white folks with little understanding of and sympathy for the obstacles that daunt minority students.
That ended Monday when California state Sen. Ed Hernandez was forced to put a hold on a measure to allow voters in November to restore racial preferences in public education. It was a huge about-face. His Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 had won a supermajority of the Senate vote, all from Democrats. Hence, SCA5 should have sailed through the Assembly, but perhaps that was the problem.
Hernandez blamed "scare tactics and misinformation" for his retreat. Same stuff critics said in 1996. But I doubt Hernandez was enjoying himself, because this time he was responding to pressure from fellow Democrats who also are people of color.
There's an emerging Latino-Asian split in the Democratic caucus. In an ugly case of voter remorse, three state senators -- Southern Californians Ted Lieu and Carol Liu and Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who had voted for SCA5 -- asked Hernandez to halt it.
"As lifelong advocates for the Chinese American and other API communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children," they wrote. They said they had heard no opposition prior to the vote, but having heard from thousands of unhappy Californians, they were getting wobbly. (OK, maybe they didn't use the word wobbly, but you get the idea.)
They didn't hear any opposition? "That's no defense at all," countered S.B. Woo, a former Democratic lieutenant governor of Delaware waging a campaign to rally Asian-Americans against SCA5. "In the future, don't ever use that argument. You are supposed to find out," said Woo, now in retirement in Florida.
Although, to be fair, there wasn't much of a fuss before the vote.
I mentioned to Woo that in 1996, most Asian voter groups opposed Proposition 209. What happened?
Over the years, Woo told me, many Asian parents complained that their children had to surpass white, Latino and black students to get into good schools. Still, his Asian-American political action committee did not take a position on college admissions until about two years ago. His community thought, "Maybe we should be more noble." But when post-209 research suggested that racial preferences ill-served African-American, Latino and Asian students, Woo said, "We thought there is no sense in being noble."