SEATTLE — As he stood before a bustling ballroom at a Chinese restaurant on Lake Union in September, Washington State’s former governor Gary Locke began by acknowledging the tension in the crowd.
“Many of you in the audience are saying that I’m turning my back to the Chinese community,” said Mr. Locke, who is the only Chinese-American to serve as a state governor.
It was during Mr. Locke’s first term more than two decades ago that state voters, over his opposition, approved one of the nation’s first bans on affirmative action. Now Mr. Locke is taking on a difficult new role in the fight to overturn the ban, trying to persuade voters — in particular, other Asian-Americans — to support a ballot measure that could restore affirmative action in the state’s public sector.
As one of eight states that prohibit such diversity efforts, Washington faces a reckoning over a policy that has contributed to a steep slide in the number of state government contracts going toward businesses owned by minorities or women. That has helped feed a persistent gap in economic inequality, in particular for African-Americans and Native Americans, who have both suffered under centuries of discrimination.
While affirmative action policies have faced decades of legal challenges, courts have largely sustained race-conscious practices. Many of the existing bans came by way of public votes that were framed as anti-discrimination measures. California’s pioneering ban, approved in 1996, was titled the California Civil Rights Initiative. Washington followed suit, as did several other states.
Lawmakers have let the measures stand ever since, but supporters of affirmative action in Washington State forced the issue this year by collecting enough signatures for a ballot measure, scheduled for a vote on Tuesday, that would once again allow concerted efforts to increase diversity.
The measure would still prohibit “preferential treatment,” defined as using a factor such as race, gender or age to select a lesser-qualified candidate. But those factors could be considered, at least, in efforts to increase diversity in education, employment and contracting. Recruitment programs would be allowed to focus on minority candidates.
While the arguments over affirmative action have changed little over the years, proponents in Washington believe the time is ripe to revisit the issue, as the country becomes increasingly aware of lingering racial and gender inequities. The campaign is forcing voters in Washington, one of the nation’s most liberal states, to confront the fact that their state bans race-conscious diversity programs while more conservative states in the South do not.
Opposition to affirmative action has long centered on white men and conservatives complaining about “reverse discrimination.” Challenges to those policies have also come from some Asian-Americans who worry that their success in winning jobs and college admission spots may suffer in a quest to open opportunities to other racial and ethnic groups.
While polls have indicated that many Asian-Americans, particularly younger ones, support affirmative action programs, the funding and organizing for the current campaign to uphold Washington’s prohibition has come overwhelmingly from members of that ethnic group.
Mr. Locke, who also served as a former commerce secretary and ambassador to China, said he felt compelled to step forward — in part because he has benefited from affirmative action. He said some recent immigrants do not appreciate the depth of racial inequality upon which the United States has grown.
“Asian-Americans have made great progress in our society,” Mr. Locke told the group at the restaurant event, “but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make sure that other ethnic groups also enjoy those opportunities.”
Opponents handed out fliers ahead of Mr. Locke’s speech that said the effort to restore affirmative action would “abolish the standard of equality for all.” Others challenged Mr. Locke with questions about how such policies would work in practice.
ZhiQing Yao, a software engineer from the Seattle area, said he worried that new policies would undermine the ideals of the country that he came to 17 years ago from China.
“We came to the United States because the country has equal opportunity for everyone,” Mr. Yao said. “This is really un-American.”
Asian-Americans have led other efforts, including a recent lawsuit against Harvard that seeks to upend the practice of using race and ethnicity as factors in college admissions. When California considered a repeal of its ban on affirmative action a few years ago, the plan was dropped amid pressure from, among others, the Asian-American community.
But the idea of repealing California’s ban under Proposition 209 has continued to gain momentum in recent years, said Rusty Hicks, the chair of the California Democratic Party. This month, party leaders there plan to adopt a new platform that would more frequently voice support for affirmative action.
Mr. Hicks said leaders in the state would be watching the outcome of the vote in Washington State.
“It would be my guess that, in the coming years, Proposition 209 is revisited,” Mr. Hicks said.
Starting in the ’90s
After California and Washington passed the first bans on affirmative action, other states adopted their own prohibitions: Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire and Oklahoma.
But in the years after Washington’s law was approved in 1998, state data shows a precipitous drop in the number of minority- and women-owned businesses that obtained government contracts.
The state’s Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises looked at eligible state spending and found that before the ban in the 1990s, about 10 percent of government contract funds went to businesses certified as being led by minorities or women. Since the ban, that proportion has dropped; in recent years it has accounted for about 3 percent of spending.
The office determined that if the state had awarded 10 percent of contracts to women- or minority-owned businesses, those enterprises would have gained about $3.5 billion.
California considered repealing its ban as recently as 2014, when Ed Hernandez, then a Democratic state senator from the Los Angeles area, proposed a constitutional amendment to put a measure on the ballot.
In an interview, Mr. Hernandez, who has since left the Legislature and works as an optometrist, said he believed that affirmative action helped him earn his degrees; bringing it back, he said, would help alleviate doctor shortfalls in minority communities.
“When I look at it from a health perspective side, there is a huge need for culturally sensitive providers to go to those communities,” Mr. Hernandez said.
The 2014 legislation drew vehement public opposition, much of it from Asian-American groups. Though three Asian-American senators were among those who helped it initially pass the Senate, it stalled in the Assembly.
Public views on the issue have been shifting, however. Gallup found this year that a majority of white Americans favored affirmative action programs for minorities — a first for a poll that has tracked the issue for years.
And this year, supporters of affirmative action in Washington submitted nearly 400,000 signatures — a record for an initiative to the Legislature in a state with a long history of such campaigns — in support of ending the ban. The Legislature adopted the measure, and then opponents gathered enough signatures to force a public vote.
April Sims, a leader in the Washington State Labor Council who is co-chairing this year’s initiative campaign, said she believed that voters were ready for a conversation about opportunity and fairness.
“It’s past time to right this wrong,” Ms. Sims said.
A New Era
When he was a high school student in Seattle in the 1960s, Mr. Locke recalled, recruiters from Yale visited the public school he attended and encouraged people to apply.
Mr. Locke said Yale had few minority students at the time, and almost no Asian-Americans. Many of its students came from private schools on the East Coast. Mr. Locke said the renewed effort to recruit a more diverse student body gave him the chance to win admission.
“I was a product of affirmative action,” Mr. Locke said.
He is now joined in supporting the affirmative action plan by another former Washington governor, Dan Evans, a Republican, who said the state’s strong economy and culture of innovation reflect a state that values diversity.
“Unfortunately, for the past 20 years, Washington has turned back the clock on this commitment,” Mr. Evans said.
Much of the opposition has focused on how affirmative action would affect the state’s universities.
The New York Times in 2013 examined the data on university admissions after affirmative action bans were adopted, and found evidence that in some states, the bans appeared to have had a negative impact on minority admissions, especially in California.
Data from the University of Washington showed a widening downward gap between the school’s enrollment numbers of African-American students, as well as Hispanic students, compared with their presence in the state’s overall college-age population.
Today, Asian-Americans make up about 25 percent of the students at the university’s campus in Seattle, compared with about 10 percent of the state’s overall population of those aged 20 to 24. Campus populations of other minority groups lag behind their statewide numbers. African-Americans are 3 percent of the students on campus, and 5.2 percent of the state population of 20- to 24-year-olds. About 8 percent of University of Washington students are Latino, compared with a statewide population of 18 percent.
Shengquan Liang, 45, a software developer in the Seattle area who has two teenagers, said he worried that affirmative action policies would potentially make it more difficult for his children to get into the schools of their choice.
“If you want to say, ‘Let’s fix discrimination by introducing more discrimination,’ that doesn’t make sense at all,” Mr. Liang said.
But Maya Manus, an African-American law student at Seattle University, a private institution, said her time as an undergraduate at Washington State University showed her the need for such diversity efforts. She felt uncomfortable on a campus in which only 3 percent of fellow students were black, and she found the lack of diverse faculty to be a glaring problem.
Ms. Manus said improved diversity could help enhance the educational experience of all students while also helping raise up those who have been historically marginalized.
“They need to be able to have a voice at the table,” Ms. Manus said.
The post In a Liberal State, Ambivalence About Lifting a Ban on Affirmative Action appeared first on New York Times.