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Interview with Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien

Washington's Initiative 200, like California's Prop 209,
uses deceptive language in an attempt to harm civil rights

Seattle, Washington

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-ThienXuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien is the Outreach Coordinator of the Asian Pacific American Coalition for Equality (APACE). APACE was formed a year ago to help defeat Washington state's Initiative 200 (I-200). I-200 proposes to ban affirmative action in public hiring, contracting and education for women and people of color. The interview was conducted for In Motion Magazine by Nic Paget-Clarke (by phone from San Diego) on September 28, 1998.

In describing APACE, Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien says "APACE works especially in the Asian Pacific American community but has built strong ties with the African American and Latino communities. We've done a series of educational forums and debates as well as voter registration and education predominantly within the greater King County area. Our membership extends throughout the state, but our political stronghold is here in Seattle."

In Motion Magazine: When will Initiative 200 go to the voters and who sponsored it?

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: Voters will decide on Initiative 200 during the November 3rd general election. It was co-authored by John Carlson and Representative Scott Smith. John Carlson is the former conservative radio talk show host for KVI Radio in Seattle, and Representative Scott Smith is a legislator from Graham.

Scott Smith has been trying to propose legislation to ban affirmative action for several years now. Smith's efforts failed so he proposed a people's initiative modeled after California's controversial and divisive Proposition 209. He and Carlson hired out of state workers to gather signatures. After gathering more than the required number of signatures, the initiative was proposed to the Washington State Legislative session in 1998. The legislature decided not to vote on the matter and instead placed it on the November ballot.

Deceptive Language

In Motion Magazine: What does I-200 say?

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: It says affirmative action is a tool of what they call "preferential treatment". They use the term preferential treatment without fully clarifying what that means. Once it was proposed, people really didn't know what the actual initiative said or meant. The initiative clearly uses deceptive language in a blatant attempt to confuse voters. Entitled "The Washington Civil Rights Initiative," the proposed law dupes Washington State voters into supporting so-called civil rights without telling them the entire truth.  Hidden in each vague line of the initiative lies the mechanism which will end affirmative action for women and people of color, a critical component in our nation's efforts to ensure civil rights.

At the same time, the initiative preserves affirmative action for a few select groups dominated by white males. The assumptions are simple and rooted in the prejudices held by much of the radical right: Oppression no longer exists in America. Woman and people of color are less successful that white males because of their own inherent inabilities and failures. We all know that in the world of contracting and employment, success still largely depends more on who you know then what know. We all know that when you compare apples to apples, women and people of color simply do not receive commensurate pay and equal opportunities to advance and lead. These assumptions are in themselves painful examples of the very problem that we face.

In Motion Magazine: Some say that the reason the anti-affirmative action initiative lost in Houston was that it was really clear what people were voting on. How important do you think is the wording of the initiative?

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: Language has always been a major factor in how we educate the population on this initiative. "Shall government be prohibited from discriminating or granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education, and contracting?" People, voters, usually just read ballot titles and not the initiative. It's a very simple initiative. It's a one-page deal. But it's very confusing because it doesn't clarify the term "preferential treatment", and then it uses the word "discrimination". In our efforts to educate the voting population, the way you pose the question is very important. There was a recent poll taken by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on how people would vote if the vote was today and we've actually gained about 10% since the last poll during summer. That's because of the major education we've done on the language.

The ramifications for women

In the state of Washington our situation is different than Houston. You have to look at the demographics of the population. Houston has a large minority population. The minority population in Washington is about 17%. The voting population is 90% white. In Washington, this initiative is not about race. It's not about race because women are also included in the initiative, though it always comes across as a race issue. I keep telling people that if I could get every single person of color in this state to vote against the Initiative 200 it would still pass because of our minority status in numbers, only 17%. We have to also educate the population about the ramifications for women. The Initiative 200 side rarely ever does that. We have a lot of support from several women's organizations here in Washington.

Again, the language is very deceptive and people tend to believe what they read. One of our biggest problems is educating people on what affirmative action is. A lot of people still have misconceptions and believe the myths of affirmative action. We are educating people on the ramifications of passing an initiative such as 200.

In Motion Magazine: What ramifications?

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: Many outreach programs that introduce young women and students of color to the science and engineering fields may be cut. College preparatory classes that are geared to ensure that students attain the same level of preparation for college that economically advantaged students receive. Mentor programs, scholarship funds and many more. Even the Bone Marrow program of the state Health Department could be cut.

Donors from ethnic minorities are greatly needed and the program reaches out to those communities that are unaware of the need. It's a program that receives little attention and it could be cut. Earlier this year, two donor matches were found for Brent Kobata, a local resident, at St. Peter's Episcopal Church's annual sukiyaki dinner. Until the sukiyaki dinner, there was no one on the national registry that matched Brent's marrow type. The entire Asian Pacific American community came, got sukiyaki and registered to be bone marrow donors. That's community outreach and it could be gone without anyone knowing it. This is the type of ramification I'm talking about.

For and Against

In Motion Magazine: Have the supporters of the initiative been galvanized, come out in to the open more?

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: You really see the same people all the time from the 200 campaign. It's either John Carlson, or Scott Smith or a new representative they have, Mary Radcliffe. She's an African American woman who lives in Bellevue, or the Eastside as we call it up here. The I-200 campaign just brought her on about three of four months ago to help diversify their campaign.

Looking at the face of their campaign, what you see are typical white males. You have Scott Smith as a representative in the state legislature, and John Carlson who owns his own business and used to be a conservative radio talk show host.

In the No-200 campaign you see a lot more coalition building among the social organizations and individuals involved. We have a lot of businesses and CEO's who have come out against Initiative 200 as well as the social organizations. Our Governor Gary Locke has taken a stand against this initiative. I think you see more of a solidarity movement on the No-side versus the pro-side.

In Motion Magazine: Has Microsoft come out against I-200?

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: That's a tough one. Microsoft employees have given money to the No 200 campaign. You can say they've come out against it. A lot of their top management, however, have given money to the pro Initiative 200 side as well. But I don't believe they've taken an official stance against it. Other major corporations such as The Boeing Company, Starbucks and The Seattle Times have also taken a stance against I-200. They see that it is clearly bad for business.

In Motion Magazine: In public life, does Microsoft just show up periodically?

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: It's very hard to miss them. They are a major employer in this region. Everybody uses Microsoft products. Bill Gates lives here. Paul Allen lives here. Most of Microsoft publicity is not about the company, but about individuals. It was more important for us to get those individual supporters who associate with Microsoft versus the company itself.

In Motion Magazine: How has the response been outside of Seattle.

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: We have pockets of support everywhere. We have a strong coalition in Pierce county in the Tacoma area, as well as Olympia, and in Spokane on the eastern side of the state. We have support in Bellingham which is in the northern part of the state right by the Canadian border and in Vancouver, Washington.

In Motion Magazine: Does the initiative effect affirmative action in employment as well as education?

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: The initiative affects only the public sector-- education and jobs. So it's state jobs, city jobs, county jobs, and contracting jobs. It does not touch any sort of private company, corporations, or private education whatsoever. However, if the private company or educational institution receive state or federal money, they must comply with that government's equal employment opportunity commission requirements. Affirmative action is a tool of equal opportunity.

"If we can turn 4% of that yes vote . . . "

In Motion Magazine: Have you noticed any political alignments between the people that ran 209 in California and the Washington I-200 initiative?

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: Ward Connerly who is a University of California regent is the largest contributor to the pro-200 side. He's been up here several times trying to publicize it and saying that it is a good thing. I think the I-200 campaign really latches on to him because he's an African American who has supposedly made it. They are trying to use him as an example that affirmative action programs are no longer needed. You also see his institute, the California Civil Rights Institute, doing a lot of propaganda up here for the pro-200 campaign.

Everyone is looking to Washington state now. California has always been that "other" state. This is a pivot point for social justice. There's currently about 20 states in the country which are considering legislation on affirmative action programs within their state. All eyes are on Washington state to see how this battle is going to go.

In Motion Magazine: Are there any other specific Washington characteristics to this campaign?

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: You're talking about a state that is known for initiatives. Everything that can possibly ever be considered is proposed as an initiative in this state. We lead the nation in initiatives proposed. And this initiative had the most signatures gathered out of any initiative in this state. This is a little scary to me. I really can't believe that people in Washington really believe that we no longer need affirmative action because we don't have a level playing field. We're not all on equal terms. This initiative is saying that we are.

I believe that this has to do with the deceptive nature and crafting of the initiative itself. I would hate to see this initiative, which is modeled on 209, be transported to other states with the same type of language. This ballot title was upheld in the Ninth Circuit Court here in Washington.

The wording of I-200 was almost word for word the same as Prop. 209 in California, but exit polls in California said that 27% of the people who voted for Proposition 209 were actually for affirmative action programs in that state. 27% of California's population voted the wrong way. If they had voted the right way that proposition would have never passed. That's what we're facing up here. Recent polls by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer show that a lot of this has to do with the crafting of the language.

In Motion Magazine: What are the current poll percentages?

Xuan-Trang "Mary" Tran-Thien: According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, support for Initiative 200 is at 53% and a private poll confirms that number at 54%. If we review past polling data these figures clearly show that there has been movement on the issue. In February the Elway poll showed support for I-200 at 69%. In July the Seattle Times poll showed support for I-200 at 64%, and now in September, two polls put the yes vote at between 53% and 54%. We gained about 10% our way. And that was in a short time. We've worked very diligently this past summer. If we can turn 4% of that yes vote our way we could win.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 18, 1998.