by Melia LaCour
A quiet revolution has been brewing. As the twentieth anniversary of I-200 silently descended, state and local leaders were leveraging the moment to overturn by introducing Senate Bill 6406. Though the bill failed, it aimed to “restore the fair treatment of underserved groups in public employment, education and contracting.”
“This is really Representative [Sharon] Tomiko-Santo’s bill,” said Senator Chase. “She has been patiently putting it through for the last 19 years. And she knew it was the right thing to do.”
Sponsored this time by Senators Marilyn Chase, Bob Hasegawa, Rebecca Saldana, John McCoy, Lisa Wellman, Karen Keiser and Patty Kuderer, SB 6406, opened the door for leaders to educate the public and current legislators about the grave harm I-200 has inflicted, both economically and educationally on Washingtonians of color.
This story begins twenty years ago, on a cold November night, mere minutes after exit poll results revealed that 58.2% of voters supported I-200. Hundreds of impassioned protesters, many of whom were University of Washington students, marched across the 520 Bridge blocking rush-hour traffic to declare public outrage and opposition to the popular vote. Protesters felt voters had used their power to reverse the tides of civil rights progress.
The initiative, originally promoted by California’s anti-affirmative action activist and businessman, Ward Connerly, was filed in 1998 in Washington by local conservatives, Tim Eyman and Scott Smith. The initiative prohibited racial and gender preferences by state and local government. As a result, new language was added to Washington state law:
“The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”
“We lost in every county, except in the city of Seattle,” stated Senator Chase. “I-200 took away all the mechanisms that we had to bring about justice in our society.”
While many protesters knew this truth in the moment, no one could have estimated the degree to which the initiative would slash both economic and educational outcomes for people of color across the state.
“It was supposed to stop the discrimination but all it did is embody it,” said Senator McCoy. “Statistics show that African American employment has been suppressed since it was enacted. It’s time for us to fix those issues.”
And the issues are many.
During public hearing on SB 6406 on January 26th, Teresa Berntsen, Director of the Office of Women and Minority Business Enterprises testified before the Senate State Government and Tribal Relations and Elections Committee explaining the devastating impact.
“In the five years before the passage of I-200, state agencies and higher education institutions spent 10% of their contracting and procurement dollars with certified minority and woman-owned businesses,” Bernstein stated. “Since the passage of I-200, that rate has declined to an average of 3%. And additionally, the number of certified firms has declined by nearly half. If the rate of spending would have stayed at the levels prior to I-200, an additional $3.5 billion would have gone to small minority and woman-owned businesses.”
“This is unconscionable,” expressed Senator Chase, “This is a question of justice and equity.”
In a time where the rapid gentrification of South Seattle is destroying many longtime residents’ capacity to maintain homeownership, I-200 has created an economic reality that packs a particularly hard blow to people of color in the community.
“In the past 10 years, Seattle has boomed. We have more cranes in the sky than any other city in the U.S. Black and brown contractors have been essentially left out and will never make up the earnings lost during this time,” explained Seattle University’s Associate Professor Tyson Marsh. He teaches Educational Administration in the College of Education. “Historical neighborhoods where people of color had to live because they couldn’t live anywhere else are now being pushed out and can’t benefit from any of the wealth generated.”
Marsh, who was a student organizer in the 1998 march to protest I-200, explained how the initiative has also impacted the education system. The law’s restrictions removed the practice of affirmative action thereby creating barriers to hiring teachers and administrators of color at all levels of the education system.
“There are a lack of teachers and leaders of color to mentor and visually represent what students could work towards. Districts are not doing what they can to hire teachers of color,” he shared. “My concern is that people are so miseducated that they don’t understand what affirmative action is. The purpose of affirmative action was to provide representation in response to a history of white supremacy. The very structures and systems that make up our society were actively created to exclude communities of color. Affirmative action was meant to temporarily restore the rights of people of color to participate in a system that was not designed for them to participate.”
Yet without this measure, statewide school districts, colleges, and universities have experienced great set-backs.
In a recent letter of testimony in support of SB 6406, University of Washington President Ana Marie Cauce, testified that I-200 creates barriers to recruiting underrepresented students and faculty.
“To those top faculty and staff that we wish to recruit,” she wrote, “I-200 sends the message that the UW, and Washington as a whole, does not welcome or value diversity, and when we lose out on attracting these desirable teachers, researchers, innovators and administrators, it is our students and our state that pay the price.”
Kirk H. Schultz, President of Washington State University (WSU), also wrote testimony sharing that while nearly 1 out of 3 WSU students are of color, “we remain challenged in bringing more diversity to our faculty to reflect our student body.”
While I-200 currently remains intact, local and state leaders are committed to keep fighting to overturn the bill.
“I am a drum major for social change,” said Senator Chase, “What has happened to our public policy? Why would we allow this unfair situation to continue? We are supposed to be thought leaders. We should take action.”
Melia LaCour is an education columnist for the Emerald and the Executive Director of Equity in Education at Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD). She is a native Seattleite with a passion for writing and social justice. The opinions expressed reflected in this article do not reflect the opinions of the PSESD. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in this article.