Asian American group opposes initiative to bring back affirmative action in Washington State

OLYMPIA, Washington—Affirmative action was thrust into the spotlight, after being a dormant debate for portions of three decades, in 2018, when Harvard University was accused of unfairly discriminating against Asian American applicants. The University of Washington joins Harvard in being thrown into the center of the revitalized affirmative action debate – and, just like the Ivy League school in Boston, Asian Americans find themselves in the eye of the storm.

            An Asian American coalition in the state of Washington is actively campaigning against legislative efforts to re-introduced affirmative action into public colleges and universities. The University of Washington, Washington State University, Evergreen State University and Eastern Washington University are among the institutions of higher learning where affirmative action would be implemented should legislators enact the new policy.

            WA Asians for Equality, which is also known as the American Coalition for Equity, states it is an organization of “Asian Americans fighting for equality in Washington State” and has a website where several articles campaigning against the prospective re-implementation of affirmative action in college admissions decisions are published.

            Kan Qiu, a resident of Bellevue, Washington, is president of WA Asians for Equality. Qiu, 49, was reportedly born in China and participated in the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square before moving to the United States to pursue an education, according to a news report.

            At the heart of the matter is Initiative 1000, or I-1000. The legislative initiative would reverse a proposition abolishing affirmative action decisions in college admissions and government contract awards; voters approved the proposition, known as Initiative 200 (I-200), in 1998.

            I-1000 was approved by the Washington legislature on April 28. A referendum measure opposing I-1000, however, could be on the November ballot, according to the Bellevue Reporter. Supporters of the referendum measure (Measure 88) must collect nearly 130,000 valid signatures by July 27.

Washington state legislatures approved I-1000, which would re-introduce affirmative action to public universities and government contract awards. Several groups, however, are challenging the legislative initiative.

Washington state legislatures approved I-1000, which would re-introduce affirmative action to public universities and government contract awards. Several groups, however, are challenging the legislative initiative.

Asian Americans opposed to I-1000

            The WA Asians for Equality position maintains I-1000 would allow for preferential treatment and quotas to be re-inserted into college admissions decisions and government contract awards.

            “We, WA Asians for Equality and American Coalition for Equality, strongly believe and support equal opportunity for all, and oppose I-1000, which will bring back different rules for different races,” members of the organization collectively stated in an open letter, dated April 23, to the Washington state legislature.

            “On April 18, 2019 at the House and Senate joint hearing on I-1000, close to 300 concerned Asians showed up in opposition to I-1000, in contrast to a handful of executives from special interest organizations testified in support of I-1000,” the open letter continued. “And on April 22, 2019, more than 160 concerned Asians lobbied against I-1000 in Olympia, in contrast to less than 25 I-1000 supporters showed up in support of I-1000.”

            A blog post campaigning for support of Measure 88 – the referendum proposal seeking to create a public vote on I-1000 (the initiative was exclusively voted on by state legislators) – stated I-1000 is rooted in inequity.

            “I-1000 can be summed up in one sentence: It would abolish the standard of equality for all, regardless of race, as required by I-200, and replace it with a system that uses different rules for people of different races,” the pro-Measure 88 blog post stated.

            Also opposing I-1000 was the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE), which is based out of Livingston, New Jersey.

            “Under a false pretext of promoting diversity and equality, I-1000 is unconstitutional, illegal, and ineffective. Passing this problematic measure greatly infringes the equal education rights of Asian-American children in Washington state,” an AACE blog post on May 2 stated.            

            “Redefining preferential treatment as ‘the act of using any of the protected classes designations as the sole qualifying factor,’ I-1000 seeks to normalize and legalize the consideration of race in place of merit as long as it is not the only factor,” the blog post continued.

            AACE’s founders were involved in a May 2015 complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging discriminatory practices against Asian Americans at Harvard.

APACE in support of affirmative action

            At least two Asian American organizations expressed support of I-1000 and affirmative action programs.

            Sam Cho, who sits on the Board of Directors of the Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment, or APACE, stated the discourse of affirmative action was “hijacked.”

            “The discourse around affirmative action has been hijacked to be about how race-conscious policies are hurting Asian Americans,” Cho said in an official statement. “The debate around affirmative action is far more nuanced; and for an informed opinion on the issue, we must remember why these policies were created in the first place – to bring balance to a system that perpetuates institutionalized inequality, to even the playing field for disadvantaged people of color, and to promote diversity in our institutions.”

            Cho added the Asian American community is neither monolithic nor a model minority, but instead a diverse group of ethnicities facing a variety of problems.

            “Our community is not monolithic. We are a diverse group of over 50 ethnicities and 300 languages,” Cho said. “So who are they really referring to when they say affirmative action hurts Asian Americans? To paint Asian Americans with such a broad brush is an injustice in itself, especially to the Southeast Asians, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who are often forgotten in these debates.” 

I-200, Prop. 209 and Michigan

            Washington voters overwhelmingly supported I-200 in 1998, which, according to the ballot measure, specifically prohibited the state government from “granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.”

            A think tank policy brief on I-200 stated people on both sides of the issues shared a common goal of treating people equitably and fairly – but differed on execution.

            “Supporters and opponents of Initiative 200 share the same goal; fair and equal treatment for every person in our diverse society,” Paul Guppy, the vice president of research at Washington Policy Center, wrote in a Sept. 1, 1998 policy brief. “Opinions differ, however, over whether existing race and gender policies are helping to heal the deeply-felt rifts in our communities, or only serving to perpetuate them.”

            More than 58 percent of voters supported I-200, according to results posted by the Washington Secretary of State. Groups such as WA Asians for Equity argue the recent passage of I-1000 is a direct threat to democracy as the initiative overturned the will of voters.

            Affirmative action programs, of course, were under intense scrutiny in the late 1990s. The first electoral challenge to affirmative action occurred in 1996, when Proposition 209 was placed on the ballot in California. Proposition 209, like I-200 in Washington, banned the consideration of race, sex, gender or ethnicity in the decision-making process of state institutions. Voters approved the proposition during the 1996 general election.

Michigan voters also supported a similar proposal in the mid-2000s; legal challenges of both initiatives failed.