Washington Lawmakers Consider Lifting Affirmative Action Ban

Pedestrians walk in the rain near the Legislative Building, Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., as cherry trees display their spring blossoms. CREDIT: TED S. WARREN/AP
Washington State Capitol CREDIT: TED S. WARREN/AP PHOTO


Affirmative action has been forbidden in Washington for the last 20 years, but now state senators are considering repealing the ban. After a vote of the people in 1998, state government bodies have been barred from giving preferential treatment to minorities in public education, hiring and contracting.

KVI radio host John Carlson chaired the campaign for the initiative to ban affirmative action. He told a senate committee that the state does not need to institute racial preferences to promote diversity.

“Yes, you can emphasize race and you can hire by quota but doing so is divisive, it’s toxic and most important it’s unfair. We don’t need to go back to those days. In fact, the more diverse our society becomes, the more imperative it is, the more essential it is that we treat people the same,” Carlson said.

The bill to repeal the ban on affirmative action does not institute hiring quotas, however. Federal affirmative action law expressly forbids using employment quotas. Supporters of affirmative action say that the policy is meant to give support to minority populations and promote racial equity.

In the five years before the passage of I-200 in 1998, state agencies spent an average of 10 percent of their public contracting dollars on small businesses owned by minorities. That’s according to the Washington State Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises. In the 20 years after I-200 passed, that rate has fallen to an average of three percent. That translates to $3.5 billion lost in earnings.

Port of Seattle Commissioner Stephanie Bowman testified before a Senate committee in favor of repealing the ban. She says the ban on affirmative action has limited the port’s ability to develop the regional economy equitably. 

“We have empirical evidence that disparity has grown, meaning opportunity has been denied to those who have not had the traditional advantages of contracting,” Bowman said. “I would ask you a question: How many Caucasian males have come before this committee saying that they have not had enough work in the last 20 years?”

Since 1998, the number of certified minority-owned businesses has dropped to almost half. Supporters of affirmative action say it would bring back fairness and equity to Washington and bring diversity to public employment and contracting.

Seven other states ban affirmative action, including California. Most of the bans were enacted through citizen initiatives.

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