Racial issues still linger in Oklahoma
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, November 04, 2012
11/04/12 at 3:01 AM
At our recent editorial board meeting with backers of State Question 759, which would ban government affirmative action programs in employment, education and contracting, there was lots of lively talk about leveling the playing field and moving beyond race, as might be expected.
What might not have been expected was that the chief spokesman against affirmative action was Ward Connerly, founder of the Sacramento-based American Civil Rights Institute and a well-known opponent of affirmative action - and an African-American.
A central point Connerly kept coming back to is that initiatives such as affirmative action treat minorities differently, as though they are somehow inadequate and in need of a helping hand to achieve success.
Being African-American, he obviously has the background and standing to take the stands he has taken.
But being a member of a couple of so-called "protected classes" myself - a 60ish female - I've also got a few bona fides. Connerly and I, and the other editorial board members, disagreed a lot over the extent of discrimination in Oklahoma, but we found ourselves in agreement that this is the pivotal question: Are we there yet?
To be more specific: Are we at the point where race, gender, national origin and so on are not significant factors in employment decisions? He seems to think so. But I would argue there's lots of evidence to the contrary.
Not that I've personally been the victim of much discrimination myself. Nor do I think that hiring quotas (which are already illegal) or other extreme measures aimed at achieving work-place diversity are the way to battle discrimination.
But on the other hand, programs that aim to reach out to minorities and to keep the spotlight on the importance of a diverse work force still seem to be a good idea, especially in light of the evidence.
What's the point?
SQ 759 would ban affirmative action programs in government employment, education and contracting decisions. The question defines affirmative action programs as those that "give preferred treatment based on race, color or gender." Preferred treatment "based on ethnicity or national origin" also would be prohibited.
The measure would allow such programs in three instances: when gender is a bona fide qualification; when existing court actions require them; when needed to keep or obtain federal funds.
The measure would apply to cities, counties, state agencies and subdivisions and school districts, but not to private employers.
A curious aspect of this effort is this: If passed, it apparently will have little, if any, impact (except perhaps to paint the state in a bad light). State officials interviewed by the World's Wayne Greene recently said they were unaware of any effects that the measure would have on their activities or programs.
What's more, backers of the measure say affirmative-action efforts still could be made to historically disadvantaged people even if the measure passes. Incoming Speaker of the House T. W. Shannon, who is Chickasaw Indian and African-American, and also a strong supporter of the measure, told Greene: "There are people who have terrible situations because of systemic generations of poverty. We should be reaching back and making sure they have an opportunity, and we can still do that if this passes."
Which raises the question: What's the point then of enshrining this measure in the state Constitution?
If the evidence were strong that the work-place playing field really is level, we'd all agree there's no need for such measures as affirmative action. But evidence suggests that's not the case.
A recent Associated Press survey found that racial attitudes "have not improved in the four years since the United States elected its first black president," and a "slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward African-Americans whether they recognize those feelings or not."
The survey, conducted with researchers from Stanford University, the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, found that 51 percent of Americans "now express explicit anti-black attitudes," compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey.
"When measured by an implicit racial-attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election."
AP surveys also have found increases in anti-Hispanic attitudes in the last few years.
Are Oklahomans perhaps different? It doesn't look like it. An online survey by a nonprofit organization, X-Out Exclusion, while not scientific, produced some troubling findings. The group was formed to promote diversity as a means of creating economic advantage.
Of nearly 700 respondents, about two-thirds disagreed that "Oklahoma is a welcoming state" to people of diverse racial backgrounds, religions and sexual orientation.
Two-thirds also disagreed that Oklahomans, "regardless of race, age, gender, disability, religion and sexual orientation, are treated fairly in their communities and workplaces."
The vast majority of respondents agreed that more companies and more talented and educated people would move to Oklahoma if the state did embrace diversity more.
The survey prompted state Commerce Secretary Dave Lopez to tell the Daily Oklahoman that several companies eyeing Oklahoma reconsidered or asked for more information because of diversity issues.
Here in Tulsa, it's a similar story. A survey done last year by the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, with the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, found that "relatively high percentages of all groups (surveyed) agreed that race relations are poor in Tulsa."
"All groups demonstrated high levels of agreement that racial/ethnic minorities continue to experience discrimination in Tulsa," and "relatively high levels of racial/ethnic minorities reported personally experiencing racial/ethnic discrimination in Tulsa."
But respondents also felt that race relations could be improved "through increased and improved communication, education and involvement of government and community institutions."
Through programs such as affirmative action, for example?
As far as reaching that elusive level playing field, we may be making progress. But it's clear we're not there yet.
Original Print Headline: Are we there yet?
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328
Madelina Young of Buffalo, N.Y., from left, Carolina Saenz of Washington D.C., Patricia Dyer of Birmingham, Ala., and Jane Rhee of Tucson, Ariz., chant on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich. Dozens of students held a rally to celebrate the Supreme Court's decision to uphold affirmative action. All four women are students at the university. Associated Press file