In the wake of Sunday’s frenetic late-night rush of deadline legislative deal-making, one achievement deserves more lengthy appreciation than lawmakers could make time for.
Initiative 1000 will end Washington’s 20-year ban on affirmative action without quotas or preferential treatment. It clears longstanding obstructions that prevented Washington’s public colleges and employers from working toward diversity goals in line with the makeup of the state’s population.
The law reverses I-200, the restriction against affirmative action state voters passed in 1998. This change of course reflects an improved realization of the need to build social equity and economic inclusion through outreach and training of qualified job and school candidates.
Perhaps predictably, opponents of the initiative — who earlier tried to use the courts to disqualify it for technical reasons — say they will now fight the Legislature’s passage through the referendum process. The bar is high for such a challenge; referendum petitions need 129,811 signatures within 90 days to put a measure before voters statewide in November.
Should that happen, Washington’s electorate will be confronted with a public debate over institutional racism at a moment in American history when violent acts of bias emboldened by divisive demagoguery have accelerated tragically.
The near-party-line votes on I-1000 in the Capitol Sunday showed that deep divisions still remain in Washington on affirmative action, which makes a solid argument for allowing the representative democracy of the Legislature to settle this issue rather than broadening an inflammatory debate.
As it passed, I-1000 will enable universities to consider whether qualified applicants come from ethnic groups that have been historically disadvantaged and underrepresented. Inequities in awarding public contracts and hiring for public jobs can be repaired, over time, by giving decision-makers the ability to take diversity into account.
By avoiding the clumsy mechanisms of quotas and preferential treatment, legislative approval of I-1000 has created a means for Washington to correct a series of historical wrongs equitably. For employment and education opportunities to truly reflect the diversity of the state, the public sector requires the ability to address inequities while maintaining fairness. The passage of I-1000 is a milestone toward building such a system.