Photo depicting Johnson Hall, Gerberding Hall, Suzzallo Library, Mary Gates Hall, and the Drumheller Foundation on the campus of the University of Washington.

OPINION: Bringing Affirmative Action Back to Washington State Is a Step in the Right Direction

by Maryam Noor

Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order to rescind Directive 98-01, a part of 23-year-old legislation in Washington banning affirmative action policies in public sector employment and education. Inslee called the Directive “overly restrictive.” He also announced a new executive order that calls for increased diversity in public sector contracting and institutions of higher education. 

Washington State first banned affirmative action in 1998 through voter-passed I-200. The Washington Supreme Court interpreted the initiative to disallow race and sex measures for the selection of a lesser qualifed applicant in favor of a more qualified applicant. Then-Gov. Gary Locke was required to issue Directive 98-01 to provide instructions for how the initiative should be interpreted. The Directive called for the discontinuation of the practice of using race, sex, and ethnicity preferences in college admissions and the consideration of race, sex, and gender in public employment and when awarding public contracts. 

In 2019, affirmative action was on the ballot again, in hopes to reintroduce the practice to the state. Former Gov. Locke actively campaigned, particularly with the state’s Chinese American community — his community — to pass Referendum 88. Voters, however, rejected the referendum by a narrow 1-point margin. Part of the opposition to affirmative action policies here in the Evergreen State comes from Asian Americans, who believe that affirmative action policies aimed at helping marginalized groups get into college actually take away spots from them and their children. In 2019, grassroots anti-affirmative action groups, like WA Asians For Equality, formed. Leading members Linda Yang and Kan Qui turned to political activism in the name of preserving the ban on affirmative action. Qui even went as far as equating attempts to repeal I-200 to Jim Crow-era laws.

But as an Asian American myself, I have to disagree. The numbers at my alma mater, the University of Washington — the most selective public university in the state — tell their own story. Between 1998 and 2018, 20 years while affirmative action was banned in Washington, the enrollment of Asian students at UW grew from 21% to 24.3%, while the enrollment of American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawai‘ian/Pacific Islander students shrunk from an already minuscule 1.4% to 0.4 % and 10.9% to 4.5%, respectively. Similarly, while 5% of Washington’s college-aged population identified as African American in 2020, UW’s student body was just 2.9% Black. More recent 2022 enrollment data from the main campus in Seattle shows a continued overrepresentation of Asian American students and stagnation or decline in American Indian, Hawai‘ian, or Pacific Islander students. While the enrollment of African American students has increased between 2020 and 2022, their numbers increased half as quickly as Asian American students. 

These disparities are apparent on campus. I’m not going to lie, when I first began my academic career, I naively believed UW was a diverse college, as there were many Asian American students visibly present on campus and several registered student organizations affiliated with Asian American heritage in the campus’ club roster. Growing up in a majority-white town and attending majority-white schools up until college did not give me the same nuanced understanding of race relations and racial justice as I have now.

It wasn’t until many of my peers began actively speaking out against the lack of diversity on campus that I realized how wrong I was. A college campus cannot claim it’s diverse just because it has a wealth of minority students from one background, especially when students from backgrounds that have faced the strongest barriers to education opportunities are still severely underrepresented. 

Additionally, the effects of the lack of affirmative action policies in Washington can be seen in other parts of the public sector. According to a 2019 Disparity Study by the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises, women and People of Color in Washington do not have equal access to state contracting opportunities.

The I-200 PAC, which aims to keep the banning of affirmative action a part of Washington State law, has already penned an open letter to Gov. Inslee, urging him to reconsider rescinding Directive 98-01.

As a proud member of the rich and diverse Asian American community here in Washington, my only hope is that the same ignorance spewed by certain community members does not prevail. Yes, Asian American discrimination is real. Yes, Washington State has historically played a role in the discrimination of Asian Americans through immigration quotas, redlined communities, and internment camps. However, affirmative action cannot be equated to Asian American discrimination. These claims, especially at a time as divisive as now, when Asian American hate crimes are indisputably on the rise, is shameful.

The reintegration of race- and sex-conscious policies in the public sector here in Washington should be championed, not battled, by Asian Americans, and all Washingtonians.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Maryam Noor is an M.P.A. candidate at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance in Seattle. She has previously received bachelor’s degrees from the University of Washington, Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and The Urbanist. 

📸 Featured Image: Photo attributed to Martin Kraft (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

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