Asian-Americans in Washington State are beginning to rebel against progressive orthodoxy on “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Earlier this year, Democratic lawmakers passed a law repealing the ban on affirmative action that Washington voters approved in 1998. Initiative 1000 legalizes race-based discrimination in college admissions and public-sector employment, which, advocates argue, will lead to greater opportunity for minorities. In practice, though, the law will harm Asian-Americans by reducing their admissions to the University of Washington system, unfairly punishing their academic success. According to court filings, when a similar system was enacted at Harvard—which included “personality scores”—it created an “Asian-American penalty” that effectively halved Asian-American admissions compared to academics-only models.
During the legislative session for I-1000, more than 300 Asian-Americans showed up in Olympia at 5 a.m. to attend the committee hearing and voice their opposition. Democrats, nevertheless, passed the bill on a party-line vote, with one state senator dismissing the activists, telling them that they could always collect “another 200,000 signatures” to run another ballot measure to repeal the law. Kan Qiu, who leads Washington Asians for Equality, viewed this as an insult—and motivation to show progressive legislators that they couldn’t take Asian-Americans for granted. Within months, Qiu and a team of volunteers, most with limited political experience, filed paperwork, launched an organization, and collected 213,268 signatures to qualify for the ballot, shocking the state’s political elite.
Back in 1998, Asian-Americans were reluctant to get involved in the political process, John Carlson, the conservative activist who ran the original ballot measure to ban affirmative action, told me. Now they’re driving the initiative, having raised over $1 million, predominantly from Chinese-American business owners and tech employees in Seattle suburbs. While the new activists have sought advice from Carlson and anti-affirmative-action veteran Ward Connerly, they have made the campaign their own, attacking I-1000 as “a 21st-century Chinese Exclusion Act” that would “bring back different rules for different races.” They have co-opted the rhetoric of identity politics and used it to attack progressives who claim to fight for diversity but oppose the interests of “inconvenient minorities” like Asian-Americans, who contradict their belief that all minorities are victims of oppression.
For my own family, the campaign has personal ramifications. My wife is an immigrant from Thailand, and our oldest son is passionate about math and science. I don’t want to have to explain to him that “people who look like mommy have to score higher to get into college than people who look like daddy”—a direct violation of America’s principle of equality under the law. Other biracial families we know are already discussing how to evade the looming “Asian-American penalty.” Some have floated the idea of “passing” their children as white-only on academic registration forms; others have discussed using maiden names to hide their children’s ethnic heritage.
Looking ahead, the campaign to repeal affirmative action has the potential to change the racial dynamics of statewide politics. Asian-Americans have become the first minority group to reject the progressive consensus, but organizers believe that Indian-Americans and others could be next. Linda Yang, part of Washington Asians for Equality, believes that Indian-Americans, many recently arrived for tech-sector employment, share the same hesitations that the Asian-American community had a decade ago. In five or ten years, Yang believes, they will be ready to join the fight against a progressive racial agenda that punishes their success.
The message from Washington Asians for Equality is simple: race-based discrimination is wrong. Progressive activists claim that they oppose racism, but I-1000’s affirmative-action program would add another layer of bureaucracy, with the sole purpose of discriminating based on race—the definition of “institutionalized racism.” If Asian-Americans win the ballot measure this fall, they will have conducted the first successful minority-run referendum in state history— and proven that the progressive mantra of “diversity and inclusion” isn’t enough to win the support of all minority voters.
First published in City Journal on October 8th, 2019.