In November 1998, Washington voters made it much tougher for students of color to attend college in the state they grew up in. Voters also made it difficult for small businesses owned by women and minorities to compete for contracts against larger, older and more established businesses.

Voters that year approved Initiative 200, which was presented as ending the “preferential treatment” that communities of color and women received in Washington through “quotas” in areas such as admission to state universities and for bidding on government contracts.

What has I-200 actually done?

It has, for example, dramatically reduced the number of African Americans and people of color from being able to enroll at the University of Washington and Washington State University.

It has denied small minority businesses the opportunity to be part of the Northwest’s biggest building boom in decades. Cranes are dotting Seattle’s skyline and businesses owned by women and people of color are on the outside looking in because they can’t catch the eyes of, or get equitable treatment from, the companies hiring contractors and subcontractors for these projects.

After 21 years since that vote, the communities dealt the harshest blows by the very real impacts of I-200 are fighting back in a big way.

In January, the Secretary of State received almost 400,000 signatures supporting Initiative 1000, the largest number of signatures presented for an initiative in the history of our state. I-1000’s goal is to end the restrictive rules of I-200 and allow efforts to increase diversity in public employment, education and contracting.

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Quite simply, after a generation of being on the outside, people of color, under-served populations, women and veterans want to expand opportunities available to them for getting skilled jobs and much better access to higher education. Passage of I-1000 opens the roadway to fairer treatment for minorities and women in this state.

I-1000 is carefully crafted, explicitly saying there could be no set-asides for specific groups, but will allow companies and schools to consider if minority-owned businesses or students of color are being systematically excluded from certain higher-paying jobs and higher-education opportunities. I-1000 will focus on using best practices to increase access to students to enroll at the UW or WSU and expand the pool of companies that can compete for a contract in the future.

Supporters of I-200 then and now say affirmative action is a code word for “quotas” and “preferences” for people who don’t deserve them. They use the term “reverse discrimination” in response to a generation of affirmative action that helped some minorities and women have limited access to better jobs and educational opportunities.

My question to I-200 supporters is this: Why, in the past half century since the height of the civil-rights movement that ended a century of segregation, economic exploitation, overt racism in the south and more covert racism in the north, do African-American, Latino and some sectors of the Asian Pacific Islander communities still lag way behind whites in every meaningful economic indicator? 

On June 4, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a historic commencement address at Howard University in Washington, D.C. What Johnson told students is as current now as it was 54 years ago:

“’You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus, it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

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The legislature is making its decision on how to act on I-1000. If the legislature doesn’t act to implement it, and I-1000 goes to the ballot, I hope you will support this effort to enact meaningful change.

I-200 has hobbled tens of thousands of minorities and women for two decades. It’s time to start being fair and just again. I-1000 will be a meaningful start.