Campaign to scrap race policy heats up

October 23, 1998

The cultural centre at the University of Washington is a legacy of the heady days of the civil rights era, when student protesters occupied the president's offices and demanded the campus open its doors to all the races.

Built in the late 1960s, it has Black and Chicano meeting rooms, with the inevitable posters of Martin Luther King and revolutionary murals denouncing racism and oppression.

In the first week of term, a dozen or so American-Indian students are meeting in the Chicano room for a KFC dinner. While they chat about plans for this year's student pow-wow, there is another subject on their minds: Initiative 200, the measure on this November's ballot aimed at ending affirmative action programmes throughout the state.

Initiative 200 would bar the university from taking race or sex into account when it admits a student. The result, it is thought, would be to cut the number of black, Latino and native American students by 20 per cent and very possibly more.

Programmes aimed specifically at women, such as one to encourage girls from rural schools to pursue science and maths, could also face the axe.

Teresa Powers, 40, is a striking Lakota Sioux woman whose story embodies the tangled politics of race in American academia. Powers, who came to the meeting with daughter Danielle, seven, one of her two children, was first admitted to the university aged 18, in a period, the mid 1970s, when administrators were busy recruiting minority students as fast they could.

"I didn't really have the skills to compete, so I dropped out," she admits. "I couldn't keep up, and felt really embarrassed to ask questions, because in our culture we are really quiet, we don't speak out too much."

She went to work, but at 35 she went back, to study oil painting and philosophy, and is doing well. Affirmative action, she said, had showed her the way in.

The battle over affirmative action came to a head two years ago in California, when voters approved Proposition 209, ending racial preferences in state agencies, including admissions at the University of California. The result has been a sharp fall in minority numbers at top-flight public universities, law and medical schools.

Now the political focus has moved north to the whiter, wealthier, but politically liberal state of Washington. Polls show a majority of voters are likely to back Initiative 200, and its conservative promoters hope it will re-energise a national campaign against affirmative action. But the measure is opposed by Washington's Chinese-American Governor, Gary Locke, and major local employers.

The University of Washington is an unlikely eye of this storm. The 35,000-student campus exudes health and prosperity in a state where the economy is only just beginning to feel the hurt of the Asian crisis.

White and Asian faces dominate the campus, as they do the state, accounting for 93 per cent of the student body. But a conservative group backing the initiative, the Washington-based Centre for Equal Opportunity, recently published a report claiming that several hundred Asian and white students are rejected annually by the university despite having higher test scores and school grades than blacks who were admitted. (However, only about 100 black students enrolled in the university in 1995, compared with 2,340 white students.) Officials concede that the early efforts to boost minority numbers may have been over-generous to applicants. But in the past three years the university, watchful for lawsuits, has abandoned a two-track system with a separate office that admitted 400-500 minority students a year.

"We do use race as a factor," said university president Richard McCormick. "It's just one factor. We use lots of others, but it is important."

A supporter of affirmative action, McCormick adds: "We fear that Initiative 200 will make it more difficult for us to remain a diverse university. It's connected to academic excellence because our classrooms are better if they include students from different backgrounds, different points of views and different experiences."

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