The state of Washington’s Initiative 200 is next round in the national struggle over affirmative action
Seattle — Activists seeking to roll back affirmative action
programs won a 1996 election victory in California, but stalled in
Houston in 1997. Now, they are seeking to jump-start their national
campaign with an initiative on the Washington state ballot this
Initiative 200 would bar state and local governments from,
“discriminating or granting preferential treatment based on race, sex,
color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, education,
Its proponents advertise it as “The Washington State Civil Rights
Initiative.” A virtual replay of California’s Proposition 209, I-200
received $178,000 — money that helped fund paid signature gatherers —
from Prop 209 supporter Ward Connerly’s American Civil Rights Institute.
According to Michelle Ackerman, the communications director for NO!
200, anti-affirmative action forces have targeted Washington state to
re-start what is perceived to be a stalled national agenda.
“It’s very clear that’s what this would do,” she said.
John Carlson, the chairman of Yes on Initiative 200, said victory
would “hasten the pace of change, [although] change is coming anyway.”
As in the California ballot, where Connerly was a high-visibility
figure, 1200 has an African American among its four co-chairs, Mary A.
“I’m against discrimination of any kind,” said Radcliffe, who cites
a background as co-chair of an Olympia Episcopal Diocese racial issues
committee and with diversity groups at U.S. West, where she retired as
assistant to the president of the phone company’s Washington branch.
“It’s really very troublesome when people achieve and then someone
slaps them in the face and says, `Did affirmative action get you
there?'” she added. “Coming from the South, going to high school in the
fifties, we didn’t have to worry about what someone achieved. People
knew you did it on your own.”
An Important Battleground
For both sides, Washington is a high-risk battleground. A loss in
the overwhelmingly White state might spell trouble for affirmative
action rollbacks. After all, Washington is a state with a liberal
reputation that in 1996 elected the nation’s first Chinese American
governor. And Seattle, where Whites represent the vast majority, put a
Black mayor in office.
If Washington passes I-200, “It would send a demoralizing message,”
said Dr. Ronald Takaki, a University of California-Berkeley ethnic
studies professor who was active in the fight against California’s Prop
209. “Whites in Washington don’t have to be anxious. Minorities are not
there in large numbers, [In California], Whites wouldn’t vote for a
minority for state office.”
Major Washington corporations have swung behind NO! 200 —
including Microsoft, Starbucks, Weyerhaeuser, and Boeing, although
Boeing is facing a major racial discrimination lawsuit that drew a
visit by Jesse Jackson. As if to underscore concerns about impacts on
the Washington economy, the National Association of Black Journalists
is holding off a decision on a prospective 1999 Seattle convention
pending election results.
Couched as a civil rights measure, I-200 plays well with Washington
voters. A Seattle Times poll conducted in late June found when the
ballot title was read, 64 percent were in favor, 25 percent opposed,
and 11 percent were undecided. When respondents were told the
initiative would end affirmative action, support dropped to 49 percent,
with 35 percent opposed, and 16 percent undecided.
“It’s basically what we know,” said Ackerman, who cited Prop 209
exit polls showing 27 percent of “yes” voters thought they were
supporting affirmative action.
I-200 opponents unsuccessfully sued to have the ballot title spell
out the consequence, ending race- and gender-based affirmative action.
“We have a really tough battle,” Ackerman said. “If all the people
know is the ballot title, we’ve got a problem. The ballot title is a
poll-tested code. On the face of it, it sounds good. Would you ban
discrimination? The poison underneath is, `Do we want to ban
discrimination against White men?'”
Carlson found the poll results “understandable. Affirmative action
means different things to different people. We like the ballot title
because it says what we think the initiative does.”
Perhaps ironically, the majority of state employees hired through
affirmative action are White women and men. White males hired through
targeting veterans and older workers outnumbered affirmative action
hires for any racial minority. Those efforts would remain untouched.
“What we learned from our loss is how Ward Connerly and company
racialized affirmative action,” Takaki said. “They covered up the facts
that the primary beneficiaries in California have been women,
especially White women. We made a strategic mistake by not challenging
this racialization. Affirmative action is in the interest of White
women and a lot of White men whose wives are employed in professional
I-200 opponents are playing the gender angle prominently. A
full-page ad in The Seattle Times placed by publisher Frank Blethen,
led off, “We’re all touched by affirmative action. Anyone with a
mother, sister, or a daughter has benefitted from it.”
Nonetheless, much attention has focused on the impact the
initiative will have on higher education, particularly at the state’s
flagship public institution, the University of Washington.
“I suspect they will be devastating,” said Dr. Myron Apilado, vice president for minority affairs.
“One of the best guides is to look at California,” Ackerman said.
At Berkeley, Takaki noted, in this year’s entering class, African
American and Latino enrollment is less than 10 percent. Under
affirmative action, that figure was 22 percent.
At UW, 30 percent of the undergraduates are minorities, mostly
Asian. Native Americans are 2 percent, African Americans 3 percent and
Latino 4 percent.
Asked if she is disturbed by the drop in California minority
enrollments, Radcliffe said, “It would concern me if I thought 209 had
anything to do with it. If you want statistics to come out in your
favor you can do that.”
Apilado predicted that I-200 would affect recruiting.
“Our minority outreach and women’s program will be affected,”
Apilado said. “It’s a mistake to think that test scores are the best
ways to measure one’s ability to be successful.”
“It’s really a hatchet, cutting off the progress,” said Dr. Millie
Russell, a UW biology lecturer. “With all tile problems we [minorities
have] had getting on the campuses, it just seems tragic.”
Russell directs a UW mentoring program that targets minority middle school students with college potential.
“That program would be knocked out of business,” she said, adding
that even if outreach were re-geared to socio-economic criteria, as
I-200 proponents have suggested, “It would certainly curtail our
efforts with some minority students. Incomes do not necessarily equate
with educational background. Socialization of parents makes a
Gene Magallanes, who runs a program to recruit minority engineering
and science students, worries that I-200 could affect internships. He
founded Alliances for Learning and Vision for Underrepresented
Americans. Now present on thirteen campuses nationwide, it recruits
high school students for internships before and during college.
“It’s likely we would not be able to do that if I-200 passes,” he said.
Conan Viernes is a UW honors student who was placed at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, through Magallanes’s
program. He noted, “I grew up on a farm, and worked with migrant
workers until I got out of high school. Many people don’t have
computers at home, don’t know what’s out there. You have to give them
opportunities. It’s a lot harder to get to college without affirmative
The Suit and Its Tie to I-200
UW and I-200 are tied through a high-profile lawsuit by Katuria
Smith, a White UW graduate who claims racial discrimination denied her
admission to the university’s law school in 1994. Smith, a low-income
background student with high GPAs and a 95th percentile score on her
Law School Admissions Test, was passed over for a number of
lower-scoring minority applicants.
To complicate matters, the UW Law School dean, Dr. Roland Hjorth,
was quoted in a Village Voice column by Nat Hentoff as saying that
Smith would have gained admission if she were Black. That statement was
allegedly made after a law school guest posed a question at a luncheon
attended by Hjorth and law school faculty.
The column states: “… would she have been accepted if the
admissions committee had believed her to be Black? There was no
hesitation, no equivocation. `Yes,’ the dean — an honest man — said.
And several of the law professors nodded in agreement.”
Hjorth denied he or anyone else there gave any such indication, and
produced affidavits from the other faculty present supporting his
version. For any lawyer, let alone a law school dean, to make a public
statement in a case where they are a defendant strains credulity, he
I-200 proponents plan to use the alleged remarks in arguments they
will present in voter-information pamphlets. Hjorth has asked the I-200
supporters to strike his alleged remarks from the pamphlet, which goes
to all voters.
The dean speculated that Hentoff may have been confused about a
question to which he did answer yes — which was, would Smith’s
application have been processed if she had not marked the race box.
But Hentoff was insistent that his report was accurate.
“I really feel sorry for the dean. He must be under enormous pressure,” the columnist said.
As for the affidavits, Hentoff ascribed them to “institutional loyalty.”
I-200 forces were not backing down either.
“My view is that the dean was so relaxed and uninhibited that he accidentally told the simple truth,” Carlson said.
The state Attorney General is preparing to seek a court ruling on the I-200 issue.
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