State Question 759 is a statewide measure on Oklahoma’s November 2012 ballot.
The measure would disallow “affirmative action” programs as they relate to contracting, education and employment from the state or any Oklahoma county, city, town, or school district.
A ‘yes’ vote would end affirmative action programs, which, according to the measure’s wording, “give preferred treatment based on race, color or gender. They also give preferred treatment based on ethnicity or national origin.”
Some affirmative action programs, however, would still be allowed:
1. When gender is a bonafide qualification, it is allowed
2. Existing court orders and consent decrees that require preferred treatment will continue and can be followed
3. Affirmative action is allowed when needed to keep or obtain federal funds
Installing Affirmative Action
Despite the push to end affirmative action, the practice doesn’t play a prominent role in hiring, contracting and education in Oklahoma.
Statutes require that state agencies create affirmative action plans to ensure their employees are representative of Oklahoma’s demographics as a whole. However, agencies that fail to create such plans face no penalty.
Some agencies, like the Department of Transportation, set goals for the number of minority-owned businesses it contracts with.
Oklahoma first required the affirmative action plans in 1984, according to the state’s Human Capital Management Division:
“This legislation also required the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to report annually on the progress made by governmental entities in the area of affirmative action, including the status of recruitment of women, men, and minorities within EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) job categories.”
The requirements evolved through the 1980s.
“Subsequent legislation gave the OPM Administrator the responsibility for implementing the state’s affirmative action policies and for ensuring equal employment opportunity in state government, and made agency Appointing Authorities responsible for affirmative action efforts and progress by requiring each agency to submit an AAP to OPM annually.”
In 1994, the Affirmative Action Review Council was created to help standardize the practice in state government. The council has six members, with two each appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representative, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and the governor.
“The OPM Administrator consults with AARC members concerning the standards that executive branch agencies must follow in adopting their affirmative action plans. AARC members review agency affirmative action plans for compliance with these standards.”
Efforts to End Affirmative Action
The first effort to end affirmative action in Oklahoma came in 2008. Proponents gathered signatures to get the measure on the ballot. However, the validity of the signatures was called into question, and proponents of the ban abandoned the attempt. Three years later, the Legislature succeeded in getting the measure on the 2012 ballot.
State Question 759 came out of the 2011 legislative session. State Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Kingfisher, authored the resolution, which was modeled after affirmative action bans in other states. Similar measures have been passed in California, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona and Washington.
From the The Associated Press’ Sean Murphy:
The bill drew fierce opposition from Democrats … and led to a formal reprimand of Republican state Rep. Sally Kern who, during debate in support of the bill, questioned whether there were disproportionally high numbers of black in prison because “they didn’t want to work hard in school.”
Kern later delivered a tearful apology on the House floor, and then voted for her own reprimand.
KOSU’s Michael Cross talked with Ward Connerly, President of the American Civil Rights Coalition in California, which passed an affirmative action ban in 1996, Connerly says it’s difficult to see the impact of the ban even 16 years later:
He does admit there have been declines in minorities enrolled at UCLA and Berkley, however, “In the overall UC system and there are ten universities in the California system, some are more selective than the others, but in the overall UC system the number of blacks and Hispanics is up not down.”
Though some Democrats voted against the Republican-authored affirmative action measure in the state legislature, it passed with bipartisan support. Republican T.W. Shannon of Lawton is set to become Oklahoma’s first African-American House Speaker. In 2011, he told the Tulsa World he believes discrimination still exists, but that affirmative action hasn’t “been as successful as we like to believe.”
Organizations that support the passage of SQ 759 and a ban on affirmative action include the California-based American Civil Rights Institute.
Proponents generally don’t disagree with the goal of affirmative action — to increase diversity — but argue that considering race in state hiring, contracting and education is fundamentally unfair and discriminatory.
A wide array of minority rights organizations oppose SQ 759 and want affirmative action to remain in Oklahoma, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, which maintains that SQ 759 is a “misleading and deceptive attempt to curb programs that have created opportunities for qualified Oklahomans that have been historically withheld.”
The Central Oklahoma Human Rights Alliance has brought a number of organizations together in opposition to SQ 759. The COHRA website claims that women, regardless of race, would also be further disadvantaged if affirmative action is banned:
“State agencies that spend public funds are called to set their own goals annually toward achieving fairness in including women and minorities in hiring and contracting. These goals are submitted to the State Office of Personnel Management, but it is not even mandatory that agencies meet the goals that they have set for themselves.
To gain support for this, the language of S.Q. 759 implies that women and minorities receive ‘preferred treatment’ under Oklahoma’s Affirmative Action statutes. This is not true.”