Affirmative Action Returning to Washington Ballots

Initiative 1000 seeks to reverse the impact Initiative 200 had in the 1990s.

by Sharayah Lane

As Carl Livingston stood behind the curtain, he took deep breaths, prayed and worked (in vain) to calm his nerves. In a few moments he, a Black man, would be going out in front of hundreds to debate a white man on the merits of Affirmative Action in the state of Washington.

It was 1996 and the topic of repealing affirmative action was on everyone’s minds. Students at Seattle Central Community College organized a major debate on the subject. Tim Eyman was the bill’s drafter and main spokesperson and had recently travelled the country working to convince the masses that Washington voters needed to axe affirmative action from state law with Initiative 200.

Livingston was a lifelong Washingtonian and had benefited from the law some of the most important stages in his life and in different parts of the country. He’d received his bachelor’s degree in Tulsa, Oklahoma, completed his law degree at Notre Dame and interviewed for his job as a professor at Seattle Central Community College all under the tenants of Affirmative Action.

As he took the stage in 1996, he knew that he was not alone in his experience of receiving opportunities as a minority. Affirmative action mattered.

What he could not have known was that he would spend the next 20 years travelling to Olympia continuing to fight against Eyman’s messaging and that in 2019 an initiative would seek to combat the systemic discrimination that has not yet gone away.

He took one last deep breath and stepped out onto the stage.

“The room was packed,” said Livingston, “and I felt like I was a part of history, like it was so important that I did not fail. I was feeling nervousness, angst, and foreboding. I didn’t want to mess up.”

Both men took the stage as the debate to repeal affirmative action in Washington State began.

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Carl Livingston debated Tim Eyman on the 1998 initiative that ended affirmative action in Washington. Initiative 1000 would reverse that action. (Photo: Susan Fried)

President John F. Kennedy first discussed affirmative action in 1961 in an executive order that contractors would need to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.”

This was followed up by President Lynden B. Johnson in an executive order that that created the ability for states to enforce affirmative action policies. Federal law requires government contractors and employers receiving federal funding to utilize affirmative action in their practices.

As we fast forward to 2018, Washington has been without affirmative action for 20 years (the initiative passed in 1998). In 2017 UW President Ana Mari Cauce stated, “I-200 puts Washington universities at a disadvantage when trying to recruit top faculty and when trying to enroll the highest achieving, underrepresented minority students. The measure sends the message that the university, and Washington as a whole, does not welcome or value diversity.”

Today, many in the state are working diligently on passing Initiative 1000. Extensive work has gone into undoing the negative impacts of I-200 in minority communities over the years. I-1000 is the latest of those efforts.

The initiative seeks to challenge the definition of “preferential treatment” wording in I-200 arguing that preferential treatment is defined as “selecting a less qualified applicant over a more qualified applicant based on the premise of race, gender or any other minority group”. More specifically, the bill seeks to do two things:

  1. Allow the state to remedy proven discrimination against, or underrepresentation of, certain disadvantaged groups by allowing the state to implement affirmative action in education, employment and contracting so long as the action does not use quotas or “preferential treatment”.
  2. Establishes a Governor’s commission on diversity, equity and inclusion that would be responsible for planning, directing, monitoring and enforcing state agency’s compliance with the act as well as publish an annual report on progress of all state agencies implementing this legislation.

Former State Representative Jesse Wineberry and co-architect Nat Jackson are championing this effort at the grassroots level. If supporters gather enough signatures, I-1000 will appear on the ballot November 5, 2019.

Protestors gather at the University of Washington for a rally to reject Initiative 200, which passed in Washington in 1998. (Photo: Susan Fried)

In 1996, before I-200 went on the ballot, the messaging surrounding the legislation was critical.

“Some made the argument that you really don’t need [affirmative action] anymore, that you’ll do fine without it,” said Livingston, “Some said it was a crutch and a lot of people just gave up on trying to stop it. They said that if it passed in California then it could pass here, and it did.”

The basic premise behind affirmative action is that hundreds of years of institutional racism can only be undone with institutional correction, ensuring that minority groups are getting intentional admittance to public higher education, government contracts and employment

I-200 passed in Washington with a vote of 56 percent in favor. The impact in the communities benefiting from affirmative action was sudden and profound.

“Construction began to dry up. African Americans, Latinos and others who were getting major contracts lost all that money very suddenly,” said Livingston, “suddenly people were competing for half the pot or a third of the pot. We could see some impact after a year and a major impact after five years. It increased people of color’s unemployment and underemployment.”

Local electrician Langston Taber owned Taber Electric in Seattle’s Central District and had hired many African Americans for three decades. His business base was largely dependent on public funding contracts. He worked with everything he had to fight I-200 for himself, his employees and their families. After I-200 passed it had a profoundly negative impact on Taber’s company and he passed away just a few months later. Tabor 100 is an organization that was founded in Tabor’s honor to promote and support economic power, educational excellence, and social equity for African Americans.

During a march and rally celebrating the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington, participants carried a coffin through Seattle signifying the death of Initiative 200. (Photo: Susan Fried)

In the years since I-200 passed Carl Livingston has worked diligently toward its repeal. Washington State legislature archive videos show Carl Livingston standing alone in front of uninterested looking committees passionately arguing for the merits and values of affirmative action as bill after bill has passed through the house to repeal I-200 with no avail.

“The representatives didn’t want to hear it. They didn’t believe there was a reason to repeal I-200,” said Livingston, “Some had the view that discrimination in Washington rarely happens. Eyes would roll and people would be like ‘why are we talking about this’.”

When asked what motivated him to continually travel down to Olympia, even before anyone was really paying attention, Livingston said, “I knew I had specialized knowledge on the topic and I would drive down there even if I was ignored or disbelieved. I would always have to muster whatever willpower and brainpower I had to go down there and present. I only wish I could have made better arguments.”

What is behind this effort is what was behind all of Carl Livingston, Langston Taber, and everyone who has fought to restore institutional equity to minority groups over the years, hope.

Featured Photo: Protestors used chalk to write “No 200” at the University of Washington’s Red Square in 1998. (Photo: Susan Fried)

3 thoughts on “Affirmative Action Returning to Washington Ballots”

  1. So, I take it you feel it’s fine to discriminate, then? As its wording below indicates, all Initiative 200 does is try to prevent discrimination, EQUALLY, across ALL races/sexes/etc. After all, I thought the goal was to have a “color-blind” society! Or are you saying discrimination’s OK, as long as it’s just against Whites:

    “(1) 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.”

  2. I am not convinced that bringing back affirmative action is the best course to take. Instead, why not invest more in minority neighborhood schools so that children are better prepared to compete? People aren’t going to want to hire a minority professional if they are seen as being allowed a lower level of performance. I believe that minorities are just as capable as long as their education and training are equal in resources and academic rigor and expectations.