OKLAHOMA CITY — A Republican-backed plan to wipe out any affirmative action programs in Oklahoma appears headed for approval by the Legislature, prompting a bitter response from some minority lawmakers that it is merely a political ploy to play on racial fears and draw conservative voters to the polls. If approved, the measure would go on the 2012 state ballot.
The affirmative action proposal by state Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Kingfisher, and Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Tuttle, would prohibit special treatment based on race or sex in public employment, education or contracts. The bill, which already passed the Senate on a party-line vote, is scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday in a House committee.
Supporters say the measure would underscore an important principle even though the practical effect would be minimal. No preferences are given to minorities or women in state contracts or for admission to state colleges or universities. The measure would abolish a handful of state scholarships that target minority students.
The proposal is the latest from the GOP-controlled Legislature aimed at conservative issues rather than specific problems. Last year, lawmakers placed on the ballot a ban on courts basing decisions on Islamic Sharia law, even though the authors acknowledged there were no such cases in Oklahoma. That measure, which passed overwhelmingly, has been put on hold by a federal judge.
Johnson said the bill is simply an attempt to ensure that applicants for state jobs, contracts and scholarships are treated equally.
“I think we should judge people purely on their qualifications,” Johnson said. “I think at one point in time there was a need for affirmative action programs, especially right after the civil rights movement, but I think the time has come now where they’re doing more damage than they are good.”
Similar ballot measures have been approved in California, Washington, Michigan and Nebraska.
But opponents contend the bill is intended to suggest to voters that minorities are getting special treatment, and spur high turnout among conservatives.
“If there’s no problem and you’re looking for a solution, there has to be a conclusion that there’s an effort to stir up the fears of people,” said state Rep. Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Alex Butsko, an Oklahoma State University sophomore and recipient of a National Hispanic Recognition Scholarship, says she thinks the few special scholarships available are valuable to the state.
Butsko, a Mexican-American from Irving, Texas, says the scholarships increase the diversity of the student body. “I wouldn’t have been able to come to OSU at all without this scholarship. Without it, I would probably be at home at a community college,” she says.
But Osborn says she believes students of all races should be able to compete for the scholarships. “I just believe a scholarship with taxpayer funded money should go to the child who is most deserving, regardless of the color of their skin,” she says.
State Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre, D-Tulsa, who grew up in a segregated north Tulsa neighborhood and was the target of racial slurs while attending the University of Oklahoma in the early 1960s, says Oklahoma has made tremendous strides in race relations, but says that discrimination is still commonplace. According to the Equal Opportunity Commission, more than 1,400 charges of discrimination or harassment based on race, religion, gender or physical disability were leveled against employers in Oklahoma last year. That’s a decline from the 1,700 charges filed in 2009, says Jack Vasquez, deputy director for the EEOC’s regional office in St. Louis.
McIntyre says she fears the ballot measure will aggravate racial tension that slowly has been subsiding. “This should not be what brings people to the polls, these kinds of issues that further divide us,” she says.
Senate Democratic leader Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, agrees. “It’s just more of a political game,” he says. “And it will be on the 2012 ballot with an African-American president that is very unpopular in Oklahoma.”