No on 16 Strategist Highlights “The Political Awakening of Asian Americans”

Americans of Asian Descent Key to Defeating Racial Preferences in California
For Immediate Release
November 12, 2020

SAN DIEGO, CA – November 12, 2020 – A record number of California voters decisively rejected racial preferences by defeating Proposition 16 in last week’s election. Prop 16 would have amended the California Constitution to repeal the prohibition against, and thus bring back, discrimination and preferential treatment based on race.  That prohibition was put into the State Constitution by a solid majority of the state’s voters in 1996.

But what’s the story behind the story?

The same electorate that gave Joe Biden a 2-to-1 majority over Donald Trump rejected Prop 16 by a 57% to 43%, providing a stunning rebuke to the state’s political establishment that sought to reimpose racial preferences in public contracting, employment and education.  

But what really propelled the strong repudiation of race in government decision-making?

“Quite simply, the stunning defeat of Prop 16 sent a powerful national message that voters view the use of race as divisive, even toxic,” observed veteran campaign strategist Arnold Steinberg who served as chief consultant to Californians for Equal Rights (CFER)/ No on 16, the same role he had in the campaign for Proposition 209 a quarter century earlier.  “But the real story is that 2020 is the political awakening of Asian Americans who felt threatened by the anti-Asian bigotry telegraphed by supporters of Prop16. When you factor in the election to Congress of Korean American women Michelle Steel and Young Kim, you realize that we now see the awakening of a sleeping giant.”

According to Steinberg, “Chinese immigrants and their children were the inspiration and backbone” of the campaign against Proposition 16.  He described the overwhelming loss of Proposition 16 “as a victory, to be sure, for all Americans who believe in equal rights, but most especially for first-generation Americans of Asian descent.”

The No on 16 campaign faced obstacles and even existential threats from the onset, Steinberg noted. Rushed on the ballot by the State Legislature’s supermajority, this last-minute maneuver left little time to organize the opposition. The Attorney General produced a ballot label biased in favor of the measure. The state’s editorial pages supporting Prop16 reflected a rare unity, encompassing the state’s unions and business leadership, the education establishment, in addition to the bulk of the state’s political leaders, down to the local level, all mobilized in anticipated passage of the statewide ballot measures.

“In addition to support from so many organizations helping them, the Yes on 16 campaign outspent our campaign by about 13-to-1,” Steinberg explained. “But our embryonic campaign was midwifed and then nurtured by a group of Chinese Americans who comprised the majority of our volunteers, and the bulk of our seven thousand small donors.”

Ward Connerly, who chaired Proposition 209, chaired the No on 16 effort, a broad coalition that soon went beyond the Chinese-American race to include voters of many ethnic backgrounds, as well as Democrats, Republicans and independents.

“We view Ward as our spiritual leader,” said Wenyuan Wu, executive director of the campaign.  “All of us are especially indebted to Frank Xu whose tireless outreach to Chinese-American small donors of modest means provided us with enough, along with our volunteers, to win.”

The proponents spent approximately $23 million, including a television campaign, according to Wu, who said  the opposition campaign spent less than $1.8 million, and with no television. Frank Xu, CFER’s Statewide Finance Chair, commented: “Across the state, ordinary Americans of Asian descent opened up their pocket book to fight against divisive Prop 16. They also invested tremendous trust and faith in the cause of equality for all. Together, we have accomplished the extraordinary to defeat a measure supported by virtually all powerful groups in California.”

Tens of thousands of volunteers from the Asian-American community tirelessly promoted the No on 16 cause via statewide car rallies and other innovative forms of grassroots mobilization. Outraged by Prop 16’s overt intent of racial discrimination and racial balancing, our supporters firmly united behind the leadership of longstanding civil rights champions as well as the No on 16 coalition’s founding organizations from the Asian-American community.  San Diego Asian Americans for Equality (SDAAFE), Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation (SVCAF), TOC FoundationAsian American Coalition for Education (AACE), and Tri-Valley Asian Association (TVAA) were among the key founding members.  

At the onset, the Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) outreach function within the California Legislature’s Republican caucus helped facilitate CFER’s timely submission of ballot statements in opposition to Prop 16. Asian-American political candidates such as Michelle SteelYoung KimAparna Madireddi and Steven Choi became vocal advocates of our campaign. This coalition also obtained support from national Asian-American organizations including the AACE, Association for Education Fairness (AFEF), American Coalition for Equality (ACE) and Chinese American Citizens Alliance Greater New York (CACAGNY). As a national leader fighting for equal education rights for American students of Asian descent, AACE has partnered up with CACAGNY in a lawsuit against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s K-12 racial balancing reforms. ACE helped facilitate a campaign against racial preferences in Washington state last year. Last but not least, AFEF is challenging racial balancing in public middle school magnet programs in Montgomery, Maryland. 

Wenyuan Wu
[email protected]