By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Facing a referendum that could overturn a new affirmative action law, prominent Asian Pacific Islander (API) Democrats defended the law to the group of new Chinese immigrants that oppose it.
Affirmative action is a legal requirement to give marginalized groups encouragement and in some cases advantages in education and business to redress past and current discrimination and oppression in order to create a level playing field.
While the history of affirmative action is fraught with highly charged political struggle, today 61 percent of Americans support it, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Speaking at a briefing at China Harbor on July 10, former governor Gary Locke, state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, and former Seattle City Councilmember Martha Choe offered slightly varying rationales for I–1000, which was passed by the state legislature on April 28.
I-1000 overturned I-200, the state’s 20-year-old, voter-approved ban on affirmative action.
While opposition to the law is by no means unanimous among new Chinese immigrants, a highly vocal and activist group, primarily from the Eastside, sees it as part of a failure by politicians to uphold their promises to fulfill the American dream. They see it as a betrayal of the principle of equal opportunity.
“It has shattered my clear expectation of American democracy,” said Qiu Kan, president of American Coalition for Equality, which is gathering signatures for the referendum.
Locke sought to defuse the activists’ fears that it will discriminate against Chinese Americans in higher education.
He argued that the emphasis of the law is to create more opportunities for minority businesses to gain government contracts by allowing the government to reach out and encourage them to apply.
Addressing the major concern of the activists, Locke also said that the state’s schools are already admitting increasing number of marginalized students and so there will be no need for admissions officers, under the new law, to make major changes to their practices.
He said I–1000 merely allows schools to do outreach to those marginalized groups whose students might otherwise not be willing to apply to college.
“I was admitted to Yale University under an affirmative action program,” he said. “I want to know that I am just as good as anyone else, but I am happy that Yale University sent people to all the Seattle public schools, urging the bright kids to apply. I had never even heard of Yale or Harvard until someone came to our school saying, ‘you should apply.’”
I–200 banned any consideration of race, and schools were prohibited from even doing outreach, he said.
Rep. Santos said that many voters were confused by the language of the law when they voted for it, a claim supported by U.S. historian Terry H. Anderson, in his book, “The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action.”
Locke said, that with the passage of I-1000, admissions officers could now consider multiple factors such as the hardship a student had faced, economic background, and ethnicity.
“Affirmative action is taking a hard look at people you might not otherwise consider,” he added.
But the activists contend that legislators passed the law out of alarm at the growing number of international students from China in the state’s schools.
They say that schools, in considering ethnicity, will lump together students coming directly from China with Chinese American students whose parents are naturalized citizens.
They say this doesn’t happen with white students.
“Imagine if colleges did not make a distinction between those Americans whose ancestors came from England centuries ago and the English students studying here now,” said Qiu. “This law lumps all ‘Chinese’ together—that’s racist.”
During the marathon, 3–hour briefing, Locke stressed repeatedly that under I–1000, quotas were still abolished so that schools could not set a fixed number of Chinese students to admit.
However, Locke and the other defenders said that the new law would increase competition for limited spots in the state’s universities.
“There’s an attempt to divide and blame others if kids don’t get admitted,” said Choe, who has served in various political, philanthropic and educational offices. “Well, there isn’t enough room today in universities for every qualified kid, that’s a fact. And we can look and blame others for why that is, and it’s unfortunate.”
“I don’t think you would be upset if more students from other communities applied and they had to compete against your kids,” said Locke.
He repeatedly urged new immigrant Chinese parents to educate their kids in a “holistic” way, emphasizing not just test scores, but sports and social service, saying schools wanted “active” students.
“We have been working on raising kids that are socially active and make a contribution to society for more than a decade,” said Lily Yin, a member of Little Masters Club, which promotes peer education and outreach activities to places like Mary’s Place and Children’s Hospital.
“We felt that this was an old view of us,” she said.
After blank cards for questions were passed out to the audience, Santos responded to one about the difference between ‘equity’ and ‘equality,’ a longtime concern of many of the activists, who opposed equity programs in local K-12 school districts last year.
Santos compared ‘equality’ to a scenario in which she and her cronies had been playing Monopoly for five hours straight and bought up all the property. A newcomer, though getting equal cash, would be shut out from buying any property. ‘Equity’ would involve making compensations to allow a new player to have a fair stake in owning property.
Another question implied that the law was contravening the principles symbolized by the statue of blind justice.
“Let’s not confuse things—blind justice is about the administration of justice,” said Santos. “What we’re talking about here, with Initiative 1000, deals more with the Statue of Liberty than blind justice, and what does the Statue of Liberty offer? She stands there with a golden torch offering opportunity.”
She then recited part of the poem inscribed on its base.
“That is what America stands for, opportunity for all people, not based on your pedigree, not based on who you know or who your parents are,” she added.
Still another question was whether the law was partisan, to which Locke replied that both Republicans and Democrats supported it, citing former governor Dan Evans.
Qiu later said he found the answer “contradictory” since the vote to pass I–1000 was along party lines, with Democrats in support, and Republicans opposed.
The briefing was held in English with an interpreter translating into Mandarin Chinese.
Many activists seemed to be listening alternately to both languages.
But those in the front row leaned forward and stared raptly at Locke when, speaking now in a hoarse voice at the end of the evening, he told personal stories to illustrate that marginalized students might be dissuaded from applying to college by their families.
“My uncle was the very first Chinese admitted to the University of Washington Medical School,” he said.
“Grandpa had told my uncle, ‘No, just get a job and be a cook,’ but someone had reached out to my uncle and said ‘No, you should have big dreams and apply.’”
Scholars argue that support for affirmative action programs like I-1000 reflects the current demographics of the United States.
“Given the growing diversity within the multi-racial and multi-ethnic population in the U.S., the finding that a majority of Americans generally support affirmative action programs is not surprising,” said Henry Chow, a sociologist at the University of Regina, in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Activists have until July 23 to gather enough signatures to launch a referendum, which would be held in November.
Qiu said his supporters had visited public events and gone door to door.
“We are confident we will get enough signatures,” he said.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.