NORMAN — Has affirmative action turned into a discriminatory preference that grants unfair treatment to certain groups? And if so, should it be abolished?
State Question 759 brings these questions to Oklahoma voters in November by prohibiting what the bill’s authors consider preferential treatment or discrimination created by affirmative action. According to the ballot language:
“The measure deals with three areas of government action. These areas are employment, education and contracting.
“In these areas, the measure does not allow affirmative action programs, which give preferred treatment based on race, color or gender. Affirmative action programs also give preferred treatment based on ethnicity or national origin. Discrimination on these bases is also not permitted.
“The measure permits affirmative action in three instances: 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.
“The measure applies to the state and its agencies. It applies to counties, cities and towns. It applies to school districts. It applies to other state subdivisions.”
Several groups have taken a stance against the measure and are urging a “no” vote.
“I think that for this measure to pass, supporters have to count on misinformation about what Affirmative Action is in Oklahoma and what it is not,” said Ryan Kiesel, ACLU of Oklahoma executive director. “There is a general belief that affirmative action means a quota system where a less qualified applicant might get a job or might get admitted to college over a more qualified applicant simply because of race or gender, and that’s just not true.”
Jana Harkins, community activist and treasurer for Oklahoma State Federation of Democratic Women, agrees.
“The first concern is that the ballot language does not make it clear to the voter that a vote for SQ 759 is actually a vote against affirmative action and equal opportunity,” Harkins said.
The federation is opposing the state question, as is the League of Women Voters, which issued the following statement:
“In states that have passed bans on affirmative action, minorities and women were less likely to advance to managerial positions, a reduction for hiring women went from 52 percent to 13 percent, construction awards to businesses owned by minorities and women decreased from 50 percent to 32 percent, and admission of women and minorities to elite and grad schools dropped.”
The league further claimed that if the measure is passed, “court challenges would cost Oklahoma taxpayer dollars in lawyers and court fees.”
“Quotas have been illegal in Oklahoma for decades, so if that’s what voters are concerned about, then they should rest assured that that law is long settled in the Sooner state,” Kiesel said. “For Oklahoma as a state, affirmative action means ... a commitment to identifying areas where we lack diversity and then recognizing that diversity is a strength.”
As one of the bill’s champions, Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Kingfisher, believes the measure would ban programs that give preferential treatment to any person on the basis of race, sex, color or national origin.
“I have always believed we should be evaluated by our character and merit, not by the color of our skin,” Johnson said in a press release after the measure’s approval by the legislature.
Kiesel disagrees with that characterization and believes appropriating anti-discrimination language as a means of promoting the passage of this state question is misleading.
“I think that this could have far-reaching consequences for both racial minorities as well as women, Kiesel said.
The president of NAACP in Oklahoma, Garland Pruitt, believes the bill could have a negative impact on multiple groups.
“Any time you remove something that is already in place, the chances are great that opportunities will be diminished or eliminated. It was put into place for a purpose,” Pruitt said. “It was needed then; it is needed now. Affirmative action should be in place, and it is necessary. We haven’t arrived.”
Pruitt said he is concerned it could also affect persons with disabilities and veterans.
“We don’t know what the full impact could be,” Pruitt said.
“There are any number of unintended consequences that voters need to consider when they walk into their polling places in November,” Kiesel said.
The measure was co-authored by Tuttle Republican Leslie Osborn. The bill’s authors said if passed, the bill would prohibit discrimination or preferential treatment in public employment, public education and public contracting. Provisions of the amendment would apply to state agencies and subdivisions including public schools and universities.
It would not apply to private businesses. Areas where federal funding requires a commitment to affirmative action would be exempt.
“There’s still not a level playing field,” Harkins said. “Primarily, the benefactors of affirmative action have been women, and we know that women still make 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
“With regard to African Americans and other people of color, if you look at the employment numbers, there’s still not a level playing field ... The numbers just don’t bear that out,” she said.
Harkins said the wording of the question is misleading because it says it will remove discrimination. It does not say it will take away Affirmative Action Equal Employment Opportunity.