The spokesmen for state colleges gathered in Olympia Feb. 10 to testify for the return of affirmative action. They came from the University...

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The spokesmen for state colleges gathered in Olympia Feb. 10 to testify for the return of affirmative action. They came from the University of Washington, WSU, Evergreen State, the community colleges and the HEC Board. They all said the same things, in the same, odd language.

They were for diversity, a thing that was warm and unthreatening.

“This legislation would benefit all students,” said the woman from the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges.

An admissions officer quoted Abraham Lincoln. A professor waxed lyrical, saying the return of racial preferences would be “a gift to our students, a gift to our state, a gift to our state’s future.”

How was this to be done? Through setting aside certain seats for certain races? By giving points for certain chromosomes? Absolutely not.

“Not points. Not quotas,” said Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez-Kenney, D-Seattle. The bill only authorized state colleges to consider race and ethnicity as a factor.

“This does not revoke I-200,” said Gutierrez-Kenney, referring to the 1998 law banning the use of race in public education, public employment and public contracting.

“This is not about preferences,” said the admissions officer. Of course it is about preferences. That is what “consider as a factor” means.

The second thing is that none of the colleges defined how much diversity they wanted. They did not cite statistics, though they had some. Consider these percentages:

How much diversity?
Racial comparison, state as a whole vs. incoming UW freshmen (by percentage).
State/2000 UW/1998 UW/2004
White 78.9 55.0 53.9
Hispanic 7.5 4.6 4.6
Asian 5.4 24.1 28.5
Black 3.1 2.9 3.0
Native Am. 1.4 1.3 1.3
Sources: University of Washington, U.S. Census Bureau

Who’s underrepresented? Hispanics and whites. (So much for “white privilege.”) Who’s overrepresented? Asian Americans. That is interesting, because the voice of Asians here, the Northwest Asian Weekly, is pro-affirmative action, as are most Asian-American politicians. A spokesman for the Organization of Chinese Americans told legislators that preferences were necessary because “the student body should closely mirror the population.”

What’s striking is that the racial mix in the freshman class has not changed much in six years of I-200.

Much of this is because the university substituted economic preferences for racial ones, with preferences for students from poor families and families in which no one had ever gone to college. That sort of preference is more in the American tradition.

But there were problems, at least from the view of racial proportionality. In order to get the “right” percentage of African Americans, the UW had to admit many more Asians, especially children of recent immigrants who never went to college, and who may be officially poor.

Also, economic affirmative action misses another group: black and Hispanic students whose parents did go to college and whose families are not poor. These students tend to be better-prepared than those from poor families, and the UW would rather have them, but they are being recruited by other colleges that want them and are able to offer them race-specific treatment.

At last week’s hearing, Roberto Maestas, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, said he had graduated from the UW in 1966. His daughters, however, went elsewhere. One graduated from Gonzaga Law School and the other is about to graduate from Stanford Law School. His complaint to the Legislature — if “complaint” is the right word — is that, with a racial preference, the UW might have tried harder to recruit them.

This is a different argument than was made a generation ago. This is not about the needs of students. It is about the needs of universities. It is about universities trying to meet their racial-diversity goals by offering a preference to the sons and daughters of university-educated, middle-class blacks and Hispanics instead of the less-favored group that receives those preferences now.

Should the Legislature poke a hole in I-200 and enact a law of racial preference? Such a law does violate an old American idea, which is that the law should treat the races equally. It also is no favor for the poor, though it will be a favor for those who administer the university.

Bruce Ramsey’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is