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Sue Lani Madsen: We don’t need affirmative action choking paths to success

Affirmative action programs are like the choke setting on a lawnmower. They’re necessary to enrich the mixture for getting started, but you can’t operate efficiently with the choke still on. What is sometimes a useful tool for jump-starting change can quickly begin to undermine the very people it presumes to help.

Washington voters overturned quotas and pushed back against affirmative action when they passed Initiative 200 in 1998 with 58% of the vote. Now voters get to have a say again.

A “Yes” vote on Referendum 88 means abandoning I-200 to bring back affirmative action in state contracting and hiring. A “No” vote on Referendum 88 affirms the current commitment to merit-based decision making.

We no longer have a cold engine, and affirmative action is a tool that’s past its usefulness.

The picture was different in 1975. Washington State University had recently changed the process for reviewing applications for admission to the architecture program. The new process reviewed applications and portfolios with names blacked out. The number of women in my entering class jumped from the typical two or one or none up to six, out of the 60 accepted to the program. Knowing the process was merit-based was incredibly valuable to my confidence.

In the spring of my thesis year, I walked by the bulletin board where the list of students accepted into the class of 1981 had just been posted. The number of women accepted had more than doubled. I overheard one young man express his disgust at the number of women taking the place of men, and unloaded on him.

Those women were there on their merit, but the shadow of doubt created by affirmative action would dog my generation into our professional careers.

Until the passage of I-200, quotas were in place requiring certain percentage go to minority- and women-owned firms for state architect-engineer contracts. It was a logistical nightmare to split the work out for 10% minority and 6% women owned businesses. Spokane architects have always had many good engineers to choose from, and a cautious habit of spreading their work around. The three partners in the only locally certified MBE firm, who have since retired, chafed at being pigeonholed onto state contracts.

The quota system did no favors for women-owned businesses either. Architect Ann Heylman Martin let her WBE certificate expire after I-200 passed. She was brought in once for affirmative action window dressing and likened it to being Vanna White.

“It was tokenism, never got used for anything worthwhile,” said Martin.

She abandoned public works contracts and built her business in the private sector.

When I-200 passed, many assumed the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise, or OMWBE, would be disbanded. Instead, it reformulated itself as the promoter of affirmative action. It still issues certificates of minority and women business enterprises, then complains fewer contracts go to women- and minority-owned firms. It’s a nonsense statistic. After I-200 passed, there was no reason to jump through hoops to be certified, and they have no accurate count of the ownership of companies receiving contracts.

Supporters of Referendum 88 swear there won’t be any quotas this time, but game playing is inevitable.

OMWBE has hung on for over 20 years, pushing goals since it can’t require quotas. In at least one case, OMWBE tried to pressure a local state institution into dropping the company rated most qualified, solely because their statement of qualifications had not specifically mentioned having affirmative action goals. Ironically, the highest ranked company already had women in ownership, leadership and staff positions. Didn’t matter in the affirmative action game.

Passing Referendum 88 would create more layers of bureaucracy seeking to justify its existence.

Like a choke left on too long kills the engine, bringing back affirmative action denies the progress we’ve made. It revives whispered echoes from 30 years ago saying you don’t deserve to be here.

WSU professor and architect Marti Cowan recently accompanied students to Chicago on a field trip. While touring one building project, their guide kept repeating this was the first high-rise project awarded to a woman architect. The token angle irritated Cowan, who emphasized the best person should get the job.

On Thursday her section of third-year architecture students at WSU gathered to present their studio work for review. Unlike my 1970s class of European-American architecture students, this group represented a full range of American melting pot ancestry in a group about evenly split between men and women. They all deserve to be there. They don’t need affirmative action choking their path to success.