The assault on diversity, equity and inclusion continues
Arkansas’ Republican overlords continued their assault on affirmative action and the very basis of righting past wrongs with the passage of Senate Bill 71 in committee on Tuesday.
In doublespeak that George Orwell would have recognized, SB 71 sponsor Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) characterized the legislation as anti-discriminatory because its stated intention is “to prohibit discrimination or preferential treatment” by the state and any other government entity, school or institution of higher learning.
It makes affirmative action “available to everyone, not just a select group,” Sullivan told members of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.
As originally filed, the bill declared that the state “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, an individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in matters of state employment, public education, or state procurement.”
The bill would put everyone on a level playing field, Sullivan said.
Almost sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?
But the amended bill the committee passed by voice vote dismantles all efforts by state government to create a truly level playing field.
That’s bad but not unexpected with this group of lawmakers.
Not citizen friendly
Unfortunately, the public had no way of knowing exactly what the bill said until after the committee adjourned, when the added language was finally posted online. You see, Sullivan presented the amendment to his own bill at the committee meeting and shared a printout of it with committee members just before he spoke. He claimed to have sent members an email overnight with the added language; Democratic Sen. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock said he hadn’t seen it.
Regardless, the committee voted to accept the amended version for consideration, then proceeded to discuss it and pass it, with Tucker being the only audible no vote.
Whether committee members had had time to study the new language is immaterial when it comes to transparency and openness in government, which Tuesday’s process lacked. What matters is that citizens in the hearing room and watching via streaming video had a hard time following the discussion because they didn’t know what the bill actually said. The public did not have an opportunity to read the amendment nor the time to voice support or opposition.
Sullivan brushed off that concern in comments to the Arkansas Advocate after the meeting:
“The amendment merely offered additional implementation detail to the long-available bill. There’s nothing in the amendment that differs at all with the principles of the original bill and there’s nothing substantively new in the amendment. If you liked the original bill, you like the amendment, and vice versa.”
Tucker objected to the bill’s likely elimination of state efforts to contract with more women-owned businesses. Tucker also expressed concern that the bill makes anyone negligently violating it guilty of a misdemeanor crime.
Only one person testified against the bill. Vernice Nazare, representing the Arkansas Black Chamber of Commerce:
“Affirmative action and minority-owned business programs have not even lasted a whole generation,” she said. “I think this is a premature termination of the program.”
Responding to Nazare’s comments, Sen. John Payton (R-Wilburn) said the idea that someone needed a government contract to start a business “is foreign to me.”
Payton’s remark only serves to prove the necessity of affirmative action programs. It’s precisely because it’s outside of his experience that government should strive to include and help people who’ve had different experiences and who offer different perspectives.
Tucker said the legislation essentially declares that racism and sexism no longer exist, which is demonstrably false. Sullivan objected to that characterization, saying he isn’t a racist.
Well, a bill that seeks to dismantle efforts to rectify hundreds of years of government discrimination against people of color and women by denying that such discrimination exists certainly seems racist and sexist – not to mention oblivious to reality.
Our Republican overlords seem to believe that we live in a country without racial or gender inequity. They seem to believe that declaring that those problems don’t exist will make them go away. They seem to think – as did Congress when it ended Reconstruction in 1877 – that we no longer need laws to help right past wrongs.
But we do need such laws, because the power structure of our society continues to be biased against those who are a different color, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity.