By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Business owner Tony Au wants to make one thing very clear: he is all for the repeal of Initiative 200.
“It is actually a negative impact to our community, and the Chinese community,” the hair salon and real estate investor said. “[If I-200 is repealed,] I can see a lot more opportunity for the minority, and more fair chances.”
With the exception of King County and Seattle, I-200 was enacted in Washington state in 1998, and prohibits preferential treatment based on race or gender. Opponents of the law argue that it has hurt minority communities, citing statistics ranging from a significant decline in college acceptance rates for First Nations people, to a decrease in government contracts with minorities from 13 percent in 1998 to just 3 percent today.
The push to repeal the initiative is headed, in part, by Democratic Sen. Bob Hasegawa. While the repeal of I-200 is officially dead for this legislative session, that doesn’t mean it won’t make a comeback.
Hasegawa said that all communities of color, including the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, suffer under I-200. He compared it to young children standing on boxes, trying to see over a fence. Some of the children aren’t as tall as others, and need taller boxes to stand on to see over the fence.
Likewise, different minority groups need different levels of assistance when it comes to academia and business.
For the AAPI community, the current law translates into loss of business, Hasegawa said. Other than “a couple of architectural firms or engineering firms,” he said he can’t think of any AAPI-owned companies that contract with the state of Washington, and that “there are any number of opportunities small businesses in our community would have, were it not for I-200.”
But not all in the AAPI community are behind the effort to repeal I-200. Linda Yang and her husband, Wenjie Shi, are part of a grassroots organization called Washington Asians For Equality that is against repealing the law.
Yang said that a repeal would hurt the AAPI community, particularly in the realm of education. According to a Princeton University study, cited on the organization’s website, under the current law, “Asian American students need to score 280 SAT points higher than African American students to be accepted at elite universities.” If the law is repealed, Yang said, AAPIs would have to score even higher.
Moreover, she said, graduation rates show that AAPI students are benefitting from the current law, because it places everyone on equal footing in the eyes of academic institutions, where they focus on “the best and brightest” — which is what higher education is all about, she contended.
“If we look at the graduation rates for the 2010 cohort, Asian Pacific students have the highest graduation rate,” Yang said, citing statistics for Washington state from the National Center for Education Statistics. “So why would you want to enforce the racial quota, to cap them? Only because they work hard? They work hard, they want to get … merit-based admissions. … And when they go into college, they have the highest graduation rate. That tells you what? That they should be there.”
But a 2006 study, entitled “Affirmative Action in Washington State,” shows that minority admissions to college, including admissions of AAPIs, declined the year after I-200 was passed. In some cases, the declines were in the double digits, though the study notes that this decline was lower in the AAPI community.
Yang also thinks that the drop in AAPI representation in business ventures and government contracts is being blown out of proportion, and that it’s not as bad as people like Au and Hasegawa say it is. She said many people she has spoken with in the AAPI community are just as upset as she, and feel as though Hasegawa and other legislators who support the bill are doing wrong by their constituents. “We are all Asian. United we stand, divided we fall.”
Shi agreed, saying that AAPIs are already largely ignored on a national level, and “it’s the same in Olympia,” where Hasegawa and the rest of the Washington state legislature are based.
Hasegawa takes a different view of the AAPI community, and believes that those who are “threatened” by the push to repeal the law are those with privilege.
“Asians are not a monolithic demographic. Just because a sliver of that might have money and access to privilege – [does] that mean that we should actually sacrifice everybody else under that demographic, so that that privileged sector can maintain that privilege? I don’t think so,” Hasegawa said.
Carolyn can be reached at email@example.com.