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A question of equality


Tamya Cox
Photo: Mark Hancock

Its proponents say the measure will advance equal opportunity.

Authored by Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Kingfisher, State Question 759 would amend the state constitution to ban current policies requiring state agencies to submit annual affirmative action plans. Public offices would be prohibited from weighing inclusion or diversity when hiring.

Although it has since been amended to include the term “affirmative action,” the original wording couched the proposal in terms of equal treatment, asserting: “The state shall not grant preferential treatment to, or discriminate against, any individual or group on the basis of race, color, sex, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.”

Sen. Johnson acknowledged that discrimination against women and minorities persists, and maintains that equal opportunity is an important issue.

“We should be striving to treat everyone the same,” he said, calling SQ 759 “the biggest thing we can do” to achieve that goal. “As a state government, we should be setting the example.”

Tamya Cox, former deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, agrees that affirmative action should one day be eliminated. “This is the goal, ultimately, that we want these programs ended,” she said. “But we’re not there yet.”

She and other affirmative action defenders substantiate their call to keep inclusion policies in place by pointing to data indicating that women and racial minorities continue to be excluded from opportunities in the workplace. A 2003 study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that identical résumés submit-ted for jobs in Boston and Chicago received significantly different callback rates, depending on the name of the applicant.

from Emily, Anne and Gregg received 50 percent more responses than
those from Tamika, Aisha and Tyrone, despite listing the same skills,
education and experience.

This hiring bias is reflected on the national level, where African-Americans post an unemployment rate twice that of whites and have done so consistently since the 1940s.

In July, the national rate of black unemployment hit 14.4 percent, compared to 7.4 percent for whites.

Oklahoma has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, its
black residents have not benefitted. In 2010, African- Americans in
Oklahoma were unemployed at 13.1 percent, compared to 5.9 percent of

‘Legalized discrimination’

759 is part of a broader anti-affirmative action movement led by
conservative activist Ward Connerly, a Sacramento, Calif., businessman
who spearheaded California’s 1996 ban on affirmative action, Proposition

In 2008, Connerly launched efforts to overturn affirmative action in five states, including Oklahoma, via ballot measures.

is the founder and chariman of the American Civil Rights Institute, an
organization dedicated to educating the public on the harms of racial
and gender preferences. He contends that affirmative action “unwittingly
contributes to the perception that blacks are different” by insisting
that they, along with other minorities and women, be recognized and considered separately.

“We have legalized discrimination,” said Connerly, who is of mixed ethnic background.

Pruitt, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, explains that current
laws require state agencies to submit affirmative action plans, but
that there is nothing stating that they must enforce them; quotas are

action doesn’t necessarily get someone the job, but it gets their
qualifications considered,” he said. “It’s a foot in the door.”

Connerly, who sat on the University of California board of regents for
15 years, said state universities risk losing federal funding when
diversity plans are not advanced.

“These plans are not just aspirational,” he said.

he agrees that discrimination continues today, Connerly attributes
persistent disparities in employment and university attendance to a
scarcity of qualified applicants among minorities and other protected

Requiring that they receive special treatment under the law undermines their ability to pull themselves up and to overcome, he said, drawing a
causal link between programs like affirmative action and the continued
struggle for equality.

“No one is more targeted than blacks, yet no one is farther behind,” he said.

Pursuit of diversity

Pruitt bluntly dismisses such rationale.

and minorities have to be twice as good to get the same job,” he said.
“Without affirmative action, these people wouldn’t even be considered.”

has been accused of deliberately misleading voters in previous
campaigns by omitting any references to the term “affirmative action.”

The New York Times reported
that, in Connerly’s 2008 ballot measures, voters were asked if they
were against discrimination, then asked to sign an initiative to end it.
Signatories claimed to be “horrified” when they later learned they’d
supported a measure to ban affirmative action.

action’ is an amorphous term. It means different things to different
people,” said Connerly. “The language [of SQ 759 and other past
initiatives] is very clear. We can’t be held accountable for what people

SQ 759 proposes prohibiting affirmative action plans benefitting women
and racial minorities, but plans that benefit other protected classes —
such as persons with disabilities — will remain unaffected.

Exceptions may be made to permit affirmative action when federal funds are dependent on it.

759 allows Oklahoma’s voters to decide which of two approaches — either
overlooking inequalities between classes, or acknowledging them — will
bring the greater social benefit to the state.

than anything else, the pursuit of diversity overshadows and
subordinates excellence and competence and often makes us content with
mediocrity,” Connerly wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year.

Pruitt said he couldn’t disagree more.

helps us to progress, to grow and learn,” he said. “None of us got to
where we are on our own or by ourselves. I can benefit from you and you
from me.”

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