Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Washington's Roach Speaks Plain English

On February 2nd, I attended Asian Pacific American Legislation Day at the State Capitol in Olympia, Washington. An annual event, it drew a large, organized crowd of Asian Americans from all over Washington. People heard Governor Gregoire give an upbeat speech, and afterwards disbursed in the drizzle to seek out their district representatives. The idea was to put the concerns and interests of a diverse Washington Asian American community into the hands of citizens, and send them to meet face to face with their representatives.

Before attending the event, I studied the APA Legislative Agenda, which outlined issues important to immigrants and minorities across the state.

I came across and item called SB 6499, which was sponsored by Pam Roach, the State Senator from the 31st district. It called for new voter identification laws, including birth certificates and proof of citizenship in order to vote.

Then I saw something really interesting.

According to the APA schedule, there was no meeting set with Senator Roach to discuss this issue, which is of paramount importance to Asians and other immigrant and minority groups.

On February 1, I called the Senator’s office. A staffer didn’t know what APA Legislation Day was.

I asked for clarification. Potentially two thousand Asians from all over Washington, the Governor speaking, Senator Roach sponsored SB 6499, and you don’t know what it is?

I was told that no one had asked for a meeting with Senator Roach. I checked with APA. I was told they had requested a meeting, but had not heard back yet. I left my name and number with the staffer. No return call.

The morning of February 2nd, as I drove down Interstate 5 in the early morning downpour, I called the Senator’s office again.

I re-introduced myself. I was told no one had told them about APA Day until someone called yesterday. I explained that someone was I. I was assured no one else had asked for a meeting.

I was told Senator Roach had a very busy schedule. I asked if that meant no meeting would be scheduled. I reiterated the concerns about the Senator’s bill, and how it would affect thousands of her constituents.

I was told to stop by around 1:30 PM. It was suggested by the staffer we might catch her between meetings.

Indeed, Senator Roach was gracious enough to meet with members of APA, including Maxine Chan and Kelli Nakayama of International Community Health Services, and Franklin Yi of the Korean American Voters Alliance.

After explaining to us that SB 6499 was essentially going nowhere, she assured the group that her concern in such legislation was making sure it was valid citizens who voted in elections. After the 2004 Washington Governor’s race, there was a lot of activity in Olympia involving voter verification.

Maxine Chan explained that there already existed specific social and logistical barriers to immigrant and minority voters, and additional bureaucracy could disproportionately affect that group. She also mentioned the language barrier, which often resulted in discrimination and difficulty at polling places.

That was when the whole thing turned into a bad horror film.

Senator Roach responded by saying she was sympathetic with the whole language barrier, and that no one should be discriminated against at the polls. She went on to explain that she was an advocate of early English proficiency education, particularly for immigrant children so that they might grow up accent free. She spoke of a future of no accents, which would alleviate a host of problems.

By shedding foreign sounding accents, she thought people would face less discrimination. It was in their best interest.

She then turned to Franklin Yi, a Korean immigrant whom she knew as a constituent, and pointed out his foreign accent. However, she jokingly vouched for Franklin, because she knew him.

I, Maxine and Kelli sat stunned. Franklin laughed. I’m not sure what his laughter meant.

We thanked her for meeting with us, and she thanked us for coming, saying her door was always open.

We went out and stood in the rain, dumbfounded. Had she really said that? Did I just hear what I thought I heard?

Clearly, Maxine, Kelli and I were “okay” with Senator Roach because we had shed our foreign accents. Is that what had earned us the right not to be discriminated against?

I began to think back on some of the well meaning, institutionalized racism I had encountered in my life as an “accent free” Chinese American.

“You didn’t sound Asian on the phone.”

“You don’t act like a foreigner.”

“I’m not talking about you, though. You’re different.”

“You’re so Americanized.”

And so on, and so on.

What perhaps is most frightening about this story is that I believe Pam Roach loves her country and loves democracy. What does that say about how far we have come, how far we have to go?

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