By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
A rally in support of an affirmative action bill descended into a melee as audience members hurled shouts and a man claiming to be owed $750,000 by the campaign berated former Gov. Gary Locke.
“Our test scores are higher than yours!” yelled one Chinese woman from the middle of the auditorium.
At one point, as Locke was being confronted about the alleged debt, organizers apparently turned off the microphone that was provided to participants.
The rally started with Locke, King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, and Chair of the University of Washington (UW) Computer Science and Engineering school Ed Lazowska taking to the stage at China Harbor restaurant on Sept. 26 to defend Initiative 1000 (I-1000), which comes up for a statewide vote on Nov. 5. The statewide vote is known as referendum 88 (R-88).
I-1000 allows public schools and government offices to consider ethnicity as one of the factors in deciding admissions and awarding contracts to otherwise qualified applicants.
It replaced an earlier bill, Initiative 200, passed in 1998 that banned any preferential treatment of marginalized groups in public institutions.
But frustration and bitterness punctuated the rally, despite meticulous preparations, including a full course Chinese banquet, an interpreter, and an orchestrated question-and-answer session.
With colored Chinese lanterns festooning the chandeliers overhead, and as the audience feasted on barbecue pork, steamed fish, glutinous vegetables, and other delicacies, the three speakers shared their reasons why Washingtonians should support the bill.
Locke said the initiative was mainly designed to ensure that the government was fair in considering minority and female-owned business contracts. He also said that the initiative would not substantially change the way the UW chooses students.
He was followed by Gossett, who extolled the progress made by the UW in admitting minority students over the past 50 years, spurred on by a sit-in demonstration he led that culminated in the founding of the University of Washington Black Student Union (UW BSU) in 1968 and the creation of ethnic studies and other programs.
Lazowska echoed Locke’s remarks that the bill would not substantially change the number of Asian American students admitted.
However, as Gossett spoke, the talking in the room rose to a hubbub. And half a dozen times, he had to ask the audience to quiet down.
“We need people to listen up. Can people please be quiet? This is very, very important,” he said.
The constant babble of Chinese voices and the clash of dishware rose like a mumble, constantly drowning out his gravelly voice.
Finally, when questions were opened up, a mustachioed thickset man took to the microphone to complain that his company had not been paid for the work it had done in getting the signatures necessary to pass I-1000 in the first place.
“I voted for you,” he said, pointing his finger at Locke.
The man, who gave his name as Brent Johnson, said that the group of which Locke was co-chair owed his company $750,000 for organizing the petitioning in support of I-1000.
Locke responded, “The contract should be honored” and said that he was an “honorary co-chair who simply endorsed it” and “was not involved in the day-to-day efforts.”
“A contract is a contract,” added Locke.
But Johnson continued to hurl invective.
“You want to talk about support for minorities, our whole group of signature gatherers were minorities,” he said, visibly shaking with anger.
After a few minutes, the microphone went dead.
“Turn on the microphone!” went up cries from the audience.
A companion of Johnson walked back to his table, giving the finger to the speakers.
Meanwhile, at the front of the banquet room, another Chinese woman was asking, “Why should race and nationality even be considered?”
“Why should national origin and ethnicity be considered?” returned Locke. “Because we know the history of the U.S. is one of discrimination.”
He cited slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps, and the recent move “to kick all Muslims out” after 9-11.
“America is not perfect and I am proud to be an American,” he said, to clapping from some of the front tables.
In some ways, the atmosphere in the banquet hall seemed reflective of the fractured dialogue about race in the country.
Opponents say I-1000 will create hidden racial quotas and discriminate against qualified students who deserve to be considered according to an objective system based only on test scores. They say it specifically targets Asian Americans who, in some cases, already face higher bars and arbitrary standards for admissions, while fomenting ethnic tensions generally.
Supporters, on the other hand, argue that students from marginalized groups, as a result of centuries of institutionalized oppression that constitute the very fabric of our society, should be given greater exposure and encouragement to educational opportunities. Moreover, they question the very notion of a meritocracy based on “objective” standards.
I-1000 was originally passed by Democrats in the legislature on party lines on April 28. However, as of a July 23 deadline, a group including many recent Chinese immigrants (called “Let People Vote”) had gathered enough signatures to force a statewide referendum on it.
The opposing group believes that colleges should stop giving preferential admissions to legacy students and children of big donors while they create standards that are either higher or obscure for Asian Americans.
They object to the UW judging a student, in part, based on “cultural awareness.”
Such a standard has no way of being objectively measured, said Yvonne Kinoshita Ward, campaign chair of “Vote No on Referendum 88” campaign. The campaign is a continuation of “Let People Vote,” she said in a phone interview.
Ward is a trial lawyer who served as a Locke appointee to the Washington Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs from 2000-2006. The Commission elected her chair in 2004.
“How do you educate someone in cultural awareness?” she asked.
The UW office of admissions, however, states that objective data is still the most important determinant for students.
“While we look at many factors in reviewing applications for admission, academic preparation and performance are still primary,” it says on its website.
Nevertheless, some scholars that study race and ethnicity, Asian American History, and labor issues contend that the very notion of achieving a meritocracy based on “objective” data is impossible given the catastrophic differences between social groups.
“Opponents of affirmative action, in my view, attempt to cast their hope for meritocracy and color blindness as if they’ll be able to reach both by prohibiting affirmative action and any talk of race.
That’s wishful thinking at its worst,” said Moon-Ho Jung, a professor in the History Department at the UW.
“Because race shouldn’t matter, they want to jump to the conclusion that race doesn’t matter. Who in America today would say that race doesn’t matter? Until everyone has indisputably equal access to educational opportunities, not to mention other factors, is there any way to measure college applications ‘objectively’?” Jung said.
At the banquet, frustrations and confusions over such broader issues seemed to spill over into the banquet room.
In the back of the banquet hall, in an alcove, the Chinese woman that had yelled about test scores was approached by a Black man apparently in his 30s.
“Hey, I’m Black and you’re Chinese. Why do you oppose this?” he said.
She said a few words then handed him a flier. After a few moments, he left in apparent frustration.
What exacerbated tensions further was that within the community of first-generation Chinese immigrants, the two camps are starkly drawn.
Opponents of the bill say that I-1000 creates an “unelected group” of government officials with the right to determine policy on university admissions.
The bill enjoins the governor to form a commission that “is responsible for planning, directing, monitoring, and enforcing each state agency’s compliance with this act.”
“One day they can decide one way, another day another,” said the woman, Mei Li, who is 40 and originally from Beijing.
A leader of the movement to rescind I-1000 saw the banquet as revealing political maneuvering and lack of integrity.
“Obviously free food attracts people,” said Kan Qiu, a leader of “Let People Vote,” in an email. “I heard $35 per person, we should find out who is paying for all the ‘free’ food. They should pay their workers. Shame shame.”
At the end of the banquet, two Chinese men, opponents of I-1000, stood at the top of the staircase leading to the exit handing out fliers.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.