At South Seattle College, people of color talk about a “toxic environment,” with swastikas painted in bathrooms and slurs shouted from passing cars. At Seattle University, students stage a sit-in to demand a more diverse faculty and curriculum. At the University of Washington, students rally for more diversity on campus, both in the student body and the faculty lounge.
All this just in the past few weeks. For America’s renewed debate about race and higher education, Seattle is getting a front-row seat.
On each campus, the protests have used slightly different tactics and made slightly different demands. But, broadly, the protests center on three major, indisputable points: Seattle’s universities provide quality employment to thousands; post-secondary education provides access to good-paying jobs in today’s economy; and the things universities choose to teach carry an outsized influence on how we as a society think about and engage with the world around us. On each point, these protesters argue, the universities are set up in ways that exacerbate racial disparities in our city—whether through hostile work environments, admission statistics that reflect a pittance of African-American students, or curricula that overemphasize Eurocentric themes.
As with any large, diffuse movement, some arguments are stronger than others. But on the whole it seems difficult to dispute that higher education in Seattle could do more to address racial realities in the 21st century. At the University of Washington, protesters note that only 3.5 percent of the undergraduate student body is black. At Seattle University, students in the Matteo Ricci College for the humanities note a conspicuous lack of minority authors assigned in classes—a claim that should pass muster from anyone who’s taken an existentialism course as an undergrad.
These protests have, rightly, put the onus on the universities to address the problems they cite. And the universities have, commendably, responded to the protests with concrete plans of action. The University of Washington has developed a full Race & Diversity Initiative, backed by $1 million in funding, that seeks ways to increase diversity among both the student body and the faculty. Seattle University has ordered a review of the curriculum at Matteo Ricci, due by December.
But absent from this debate has been an issue that can’t be addressed within the confines of any single university, but is the responsibility of Washington voters: affirmative action.
It’s a largely ignored scandal that this state’s public universities are legally barred from race when admitting students—the result of Initiative 200, co-sponsored by none other than Tim Eyman and passed by voters in 1998. The law, which also bars state agencies from considering race in hiring, subscribes to a race-blind ethos that is simply unsupportable in the light of continued statistics that show certain races, African Americans first among them, are not on an equal playing field in today’s society. To cite just one, on Tuesday the Metropolitan League of Seattle released a new report showing that African Americans “make [in income] 58 percent of our Caucasian counterparts in the Seattle Metropolitan area.”
Since its passage in 1998, UW and other state universities have done a commendable job of finding other ways to bolster African-American attendance at their institutions, including targeted recruitment strategies. But the fact is that until I-200 is repealed, they will be addressing campus racial inequalities with one hand tied behind their back.
At South Seattle College, where the student body itself is highly diverse, explicit affirmative action could place more minorities in management positions to better respond to the slurs and epithets that workers there now say go ignored. Seattle University, as a private entity, is not directly affected by I-200, but affirmative action elsewhere in the state would result in more African Americans with advanced degrees in the Seattle job market and could provide the school with a deeper pool of candidates from diverse backgrounds who could help usher in a more inclusive curriculum at the school.
Most Seatteites will watch the unfolding protests from outside the bubble of academia, but we all have a role to play. If we truly want to confront these racial issues, we need to provide these institutions the proper tools to do so. As such, we need to repeal I-200.