It's been three decades since the civil-rights movement launched a series of federal laws and programs designed to fight discrimination based on race and gender. Since then, women and minorities have made measurable progress at schools and in the workplace.
But did Uncle Sam go too far in providing a boost? Did affirmative-action programs become preferential treatment that hurt others in the process by shutting them out of educational and job opportunities?
This is the heart of a controversial and potentially profound ballot measure facing voters in Washington State.
The initiative would end programs giving women and racial minorities certain advantages in government hiring and contracting, as well as in acceptance to state colleges and universities. And it is seen by affirmative-action advocates as having the potential to set back many programs - private as well as public - that have helped them close the gap in education and employment.
To those who fight "preferences" and "quotas," passage of Washington State's Initiative 200 is the next crucial step in doing away with programs they believe have gone far beyond what the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 intended. (The first step was the 1996 passage of California's Proposition 209, on which Washington State's initiative is based.)
The one thing both sides agree on is the national importance of I-200 - that it could lead to major changes in the way government deals with discrimination.
"Everyone is watching what happens here," says Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). "It's a key election-year issue that will affect the whole country with its outcome."
Michael Grev, who heads a nonprofit law firm in Washington, D.C., that represents clients fighting "reverse discrimination," says such statewide initiatives will continue to be one of the principal tools of those fighting affirmative action around the country. This is especially true, Mr. Grev says, because state legislatures and most governors - Republicans as well as Democrats - see the issue as more political trouble than it's worth. (California's Gov. Pete Wilson is an exception.)
"If I-200 doesn't pass, it'll scare off a whole lot of people who might be thinking about it or starting to organize," says Grev, executive director of the Center for Individual Rights.
Both sides have personal stories to illustrate their point.
For proponents of I-200, it's Katuria Smith. Ms. Smith, who is white, earned good grades as an undergraduate, did well on her Law School Admission Test, and had to work her way through school as the child of a single mother heading a low-income family. Yet she was refused admission to the University of Washington School of Law, which takes into account "diversity factors," including race and ethnic background, in choosing students. According to university records, just over half the minority applicants admitted had grades and test scores lower than Smith's.
Smith is suing the university for reverse discrimination in a federal case scheduled to come to trial in February. She is represented by the Center for Individual Rights, which won a similar case against the University of Texas Law School and is representing white students refused admission to the University of Michigan.
For those fighting I-200, Gary Locke is a good example of why special steps need to be taken in order to reverse years of discrimination in American society.
Mr. Locke, whose parents emigrated from China, says affirmative action helped win him acceptance to Yale University and Boston University's law school.
"Education is the great equalizer," he says. "I know this from personal experience."
Locke also happens to be governor of Washington State - the first governor of Chinese descent in US history. And though he usually is not outspoken on socially divisive issues, according to University of Washington political scientist David Olson, he is featured prominently in the "No!200" campaign advertisements.
"Initiative 200 is written to sound good, but it's misleading and full of hidden consequences," Locke tells voters in a television ad. "It will abolish affirmative action and hurt real people."
As with Prop. 209 in California two years ago, the wording of the measure could be crucial. I-200, or what supporters call the Washington State Civil Rights Initiative, carefully does not mention "affirmative action" - which most potential voters polled say they favor. Instead, it states that it "prohibits government from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment."
With fewer than three weeks left before the vote, I-200 is leading in the polls. But opponents - with help from big guns like NOW, Jesse Jackson, and major corporate backers based here such as Boeing and Microsoft - aren't conceding.
They are counting on Locke's high popularity to bring out Asian-American voters (who constitute the state's largest ethnic minority). And they are focusing on women voters who, in a state that is 85 percent white, are the principal beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs.
Proponents of I-200 argue on their Web site that "people who claim that women and minorities only can get ahead with affirmative-action programs containing preferences are really saying that women and minorities need more than equal opportunity to compete."
But voters could be influenced by a new study showing that one-quarter of the businesses in Washington State intentionally discriminate against women in terms of hiring and promotions. Based on reports filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the study by Rutgers University researchers shows that "more than 53,000 women statewide are currently experiencing workplace discrimination."
"It is clear that the playing field is not level," states the report, issued this week. "Even in a state that is better than average, women still face an uphill battle."
KEY BALLOT INITIATIVES ACROSS THE US
* Many of the country's most controversial and divisive social issues are being put to voters this year in the form of ballot initiatives:
Oregon (strictly limit logging)
Montana (ban use of cyanide in new gold mines)
Colorado (regulate hog farms)
Alaska (ban snaring of wolves)
Arizona, Missouri (ban cock-fighting)
California (ban trapping and poisoning)
Ohio (ban mourning dove hunting)
Tax cuts or making it harder to raise taxes
All biennial primary and general be done by mail