Photo by Cacophony/Wikimedia

Photo by Cacophony/Wikimedia

Affirmative action could make a comeback in Washington State

Two decades after a voter-approved initiative made the practice illegal, legislators are calling for a reversal.

Seattle-area Democratic lawmakers are seeking to repeal a 20-year-old voter initiative meant to outlaw preferences based on race and gender in college admission, public employment, and contracting.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Senator Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds, and co-sponsors of SB 6406 believe that Initiative 200 had the opposite effect on college admissions and state employment than its intent, which was to level the playing field.

Affirmative action has its roots in a 1961 executive order by President John F. Kennedy that banned discrimination on the basis of “race, creed, color or national origin” and evolved into a system that allowed colleges, public employers and contractors to give preference to candidates and applicants from minority groups.

In 1998 the state’s voters passed I-200, aimed at eliminating racial and gender preferences in state hiring.

“It’s time we take a look at it and see if it’s done what people thought it would do,” Chase said. “I believe it has not.”

Senator Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the issue was more about an equitable outcome rather than equal treatment.

To illustrate his point, he displayed a graphic that showed three children watching a baseball game from behind a fence. The first image showed each child standing on a box but the children vary in height so two of them cannot see over the fence. Another image showed the shortest child standing on two boxes, the middle child on one box, and the tallest child with no box. All could see over the fence.

“Disparities have grown so much with the advent of I-200 and the removal of that second box of support for the child,” Hasegawa said. “I think it’s time for us to reconsider this social experiment and give people of color and minorities a real opportunity of equity once again.”

Hasegawa said he doesn’t see anything drastic changing anytime soon but that repealing I-200 would remove a barrier for communities of color to achieve economic success. He said remedying systemic inequity in education, employment, housing, and the economy would require a long period of rebuilding.

John Carlson, host of the conservative talk show 570 KVI, chaired the campaign to pass I-200 when it was on the ballot in 1998. He spoke against the bill.

“Regardless of what party controls government, it’s wrong when that government uses different rules for different races,” he said. “When it comes to state colleges and public employment, our racial differences like our religious differences should be minimized, not magnified.”

Carlson claimed that the state’s college campuses have not suffered any drawbacks and have not been made less diverse because of I-200.

But University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce disagrees. She said in a press release that I-200 puts universities at a disadvantage when trying to enroll underrepresented students.

“Every demographic analysis indicated that the future of our state and nation will be increasingly diverse and it is incumbent on us to nurture students, regardless of their background,” Cauce wrote in a press release.

Kaaren Heikes, director of the Washington State Board of Education, said the board has seen achievement gaps by race in every educational institution from kindergarten to college. She said repealing I-200 would not give preferential treatment to minority students, but would allow the school to provide the resources that these students need to succeed.

“The education system must be equitable, not equal, if we want to address the achievement gaps and the opportunity gaps,” she said.

Teresa Berntsen, director of the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises, said businesses owned by minority women have taken a hit since voters approved the initiative.

She said that in the five years before I-200 was passed, state agencies and higher education spent 10 percent of their contracted and procurement dollars with certified minority women-owned firms. That rate is now three percent and, she says, the number of certified minority women-owned firms has declined to nearly half of what it was before the initiative.

The bill was heard in the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections committee last Friday and is scheduled for executive action this coming Friday.

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

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