By David A. Lehrer
The past two years of the Trump administration have been unsettling, to be generous. From obstruction of justice to admiration for Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, et al. On the policy front his nasty and counter-productive immigration “policies” have shocked the nation’s conscience, his hostile comments about minorities and those with whom he disagrees have been blatantly offensive.
Granting that this president is unprecedented in the modern era in his abandonment of the norms and values of our democratic system, the response that he occasionally evokes from the loyal opposition can be troubling as well. In an effort to counter the tainted “bully pulpit,” some disturbing policies are being proposed.
For all of Trump’s hostility to minorities and the disadvantaged, the response ought not be policies that are themselves divisive and ineffective.
This past week in Washington State there was a troubling example of Democratic legislators-undoubtedly reacting to the chilling climate of racial hostility that Trump has engendered---acting in a precipitous and counter-productive manner.
For some months, Washington politicians have been considering Washington Initiative 1000, a measure intended for the November 5, 2019 ballot that would restore affirmative action (in fact, preferences) to public employment, public contracting and public education in the state. By its terms, Initiative 1000 would allow race, sex, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, sexual orientation, disability or veteran status to be considered in governmental hiring, contracting and employment.
Last week, in the last days of the state’s legislative session, majorities of both houses of the legislature decided to discard the notion of an initiative in which the people of the state would vote on the policies. Initiative 1000 would have undone an initiative of twenty years ago that banned discrimination for or against “any individual or group on the basis of “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” That initiative (Initiative 200) passed in 1998 with a 58% majority.
The new measure eviscerates the non-discriminatory protections created in 1998. While expanding the classes of protected groups (added now are “age, sexual orientation, the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability, or honorably discharged veteran or military status”) the bill bans preferential treatment only if the protected classification (i.e. race, ethnicity, etc.) is the “sole qualifying factor to select a lesser qualified candidate.”
The authors of the legislation well know that it is rare to find instances where racial, ethnic and other similar categories are the “sole qualifying factor” for hiring someone; there are virtually always some other issues at play, in the past with many preferential treatment programs, race/ethnicity became the determinant; not the “sole” determinant, but a decisive one. It is also unusual to be able to find the candidate who was turned away who “more qualified” and is willing to be the cause celebre that raises the issue of discrimination.
With seemingly innocuous language, the Washington legislature has taken a step to reimpose racial and ethnic preferences in a state in which it appears that enrollment (at least in 2018-2019) in the University of Washington (which has an active office of Minority Affairs and Diversity) reflected the diversity of the state. The racial/ethnic groups that are underrepresented (as compared to their percentage of the state population) are whites (38.6% of the enrollees vs 68% of the population) and Latinos (8.4% of the enrollees vs 12.7% of the population). Asians have a higher percentage of the enrollees than their percentage of the population---Asians/Filipino/Pacific Islanders are 31.1% of the enrollees vs 9.7% of the population. Blacks are virtually at parity with 4.1% of the enrollees and 4.2% of the population.
One needn’t be a rocket scientist to figure out that if the aim is to tinker with the racial and ethnic makeup of the enrollees at UW, the most likely target will be the Asian admits---they are the ONLY group whose percentage of the population is exceeded by their enrollment numbers. It is no wonder then that within days of the initiative being passed by the Washington legislature, Washington Asians for Equality filed for a referendum to place the controversial measure on the ballot to see where the electorate stands on a divisive measure such as this.
California faced a similar issue several years ago when the legislature passed bills that sought to undo the reforms of Proposition 209 (which amended the California Constitution) and banned racial and ethnic preferences in higher education in the state. Each effort was wisely rebuffed by Governor Jerry Brown who understood the divisive impact were the bills to have passed.
Eventually, the legislature chose to do an end-run around Brown and pass a constitutional amendment which would not require his signature and would go directly on the statewide ballot. The bill (SCA 50) received the requisite two-thirds of the State Senate until the Asian American community found out and flooded their electeds with a petition with over 100,000 signatures. Three votes changed and the bill died. With Prop. 209 still the law and banning preferences, California’s UC and Cal State systems are acknowledged to be among the country’s most diverse and successful in moving socio-economically disadvantaged students up the income ladder (The New York Times described the UCs as an “upward mobility machine”).
Initiative 1000 is a case study of a bad policy that, given the political climate today, can be rationalized as necessary to counter the tide of intolerance that emanates from the other Washington---D.C.
No doubt, in the waning hours of the legislative session, the electeds-with the best of intentions---sought to strike a blow against Trumpian bigotry and insensitivity: “we’ll show him.” But in the process, they appear to be upending admissions policies that have, for over twenty years, diversified their university and avoided racial and ethnic strife. Good intentions and benign motives---no matter the political climate---do not justify bad public policies that divide----not even as a reaction to Trump and his policy disasters.