Endorsement: Restore affirmative action with a ‘yes’ on R-88. Because Washington’s not as inclusive as some think

Despite its strong progressive streak and proud multicultural traditions, Washington isn’t the model of equal opportunity that most Washingtonians would like to believe. That’s why we recommend voters lift a ban on affirmative action by saying “yes” to state Referendum 88.

The measure would give public employers and state universities more latitude when selecting candidates for jobs, government contracts and academic admission. They’d be free to consider a person’s race, ethnicity, national origin, age, disability or military experience — as long as it’s not the deciding factor. They’d be free to conduct targeted outreach to disadvantaged and underrepresented groups — as long as there’s no preferential treatment.

We wish there were no need for this in the 21st Century, but Washington has made that mistake before.

Twenty-one years ago, voters did away with affirmative action by passing state Initiative 200. On the threshold of a new century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a color-blind society seemed within reach.

But that misguided optimism moved our state backward, not forward. Since 1998, government contracts for minority- and female-owned businesses have dropped from 13 percent to 3.6 percent. Admission rates for black, Native and Hispanic students at the University of Washington are far off the pace of statewide demographics.

In the Nov. 5 election, our state has a chance to self-correct.

Unfortunately, the word “quota” has reared its ugly head in the campaign to defeat R-88.

Conservative radio personality John Carlson led the I-200 campaign with Tim Eyman and doesn’t want it overturned by R-88. In a meeting with our Editorial Board, Carlson correctly noted that the measure calls for an unelected state commission to establish “goals, timetables and other measures.”

To Carlson and other opponents, this smacks of de facto quotas and preferential treatment.

To be clear: Quotas are unconstitutional, and the language of R-88 expressly prohibits quotas in three places. But Washington policy leaders already can set goals on priorities such as education, transportation and the environment. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to aspire for greater diversity, equity and inclusion, too?

Ultimately, this may fall to the courts to resolve, as the fine line between goals and quotas is frequently parsed by lawyers and judges. The U.S. Supreme Court has wrestled with affirmative action for 41 years and shows no sign of stopping.

But President Trump’s brand of populism has taught us that racism and misogyny are alive and well in America. Washington may not have tiki-torch hate parades, but we’re no strangers to discrimination and bias, including the subconscious kind.

So, yeah, we could use some goals.

Referendum 88 is also known as Initiative 1000, which the Democrat-controlled Legislature hastily approved at the end of the 2019 session. Lawmakers acted presumptuously by directly adopting a citizen initiative.

The measure’s chief opponents, Washington Asians for Equality, responded by collecting more than enough signatures to refer I-1000 to the ballot. While we disagree with their aversion to affirmative action, we applaud them for giving voters the final word.

Why would an Asian lobby want to derail I-1000? To defend the many Asian students who have top grades and test scores, which could be devalued under a more holistic approach to university admissions.

What they want is pure meritocracy. But that’s not the world we know, nor the one we want to live in. Test scores and grades measure intelligence; they don’t always reflect the grit, curiosity, independent thinking or life experience that make public institutions richer.

Just ask Harvard University officials, who recently defended their holistic admissions policy in U.S. District Court. The judge ruled in favor of Harvard, concluding that diversity fosters “tolerance, acceptance and understanding.” We agree.

As Dr. King Jr. once said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” There’s a reason why 42 states have chosen not to ban affirmative action. It’s time for Washington to rejoin the ranks by approving R-88.