One of the state questions on the general election ballot this November, SQ 759, proposes a ban on affirmative action in state employment, education, and contracting. Ironically, supporters of the ban and SQ 759 oppose practices that are already illegal in Oklahoma, or never existed in the first place. This post sets the record straight on affirmative action and considers carefully the unintended consequences of outlawing equal opportunity initiatives.
1. No ‘quotas’ for hiring or admitting minorities
Many people mistakenly believe that affirmative action is a quota system, where people are hired based on a ‘count’ of minorities that must be selected. Public hiring quotas and contract preferences have been illegal in Oklahoma since the early 1980s. The State Regents for Higher Education have never used minority admissions quotas. The myth is so pervasive, even several legislators think that SQ 759 would eliminate quotas.
What is affirmative action? In Oklahoma, state agencies report annually on the demographic make-up of their workforce, and are encouraged to improve outreach during the hiring process among demographics they find poorly represented. The state Office of Personnel Management says affirmative action involves simply, “identifying departments in which the number of women or ethnic minorities is below that for the general workforce, then recruiting qualified candidates to address the situation.”
2. It’s now standard in the private sector
Private sector companies have embraced equal opportunity employment practices, where they’re now a ‘fairly pedestrian fact of life.’ From Boeing to Starbucks, to the mom and pop operations that line main street, the private sector clearly sees the value in inclusion and diversity. Perhaps more accurately – they know that maintaining a profitable operation requires cultivating a culture and a workforce that reflects their changing customer base. SQ 759 makes practices that are voluntarily and widely adopted by the private sector, illegal in the public sector.
3. No ‘reverse’ discrimination against Whites
Extensive research on affirmative action has so far uncovered no evidence of a new regime of ‘reverse racism.’ In fact, White women have benefited enormously. In the thirty years following the onset of equal opportunity, White women reached their proportionate share in management occupations and more than tripled their rate of college completion.
Equal opportunity initiatives do not advance women and minorities over Whites and men; they privilege fair and equal access for all groups. A scholarly analysis of thousands of ‘reverse discrimination’ cases in federal courts in the mid-1990s found that almost all of them lacked legal merit. Most of these cases failed because disappointed applicants erroneously believed that a woman or minority got the job based on race or sex, not because their qualifications were superior to their own.
4. It fuels entrepreneurship and economic growth
Education, employment, and entrepreneurship are the building blocks of a stable and prosperous economy. When some groups or communities are disadvantaged in their relative access to those building blocks, the entire economy underperforms. Targeted efforts to advance entrepreneurship, career development, and access to public contracting make an enormous difference in the lives of those who benefit directly, as well as in their communities and in the state as whole. Federal agencies support most such programs, but they are also administered and supported by the state. SQ 759 threatens a litany of ongoing strategic investments, including women- and minority-owned business development programs and initiatives that work to recruit more people in career and technology education.
5. It’s overwhelmingly popular
Pew Research found 70 percent of Americans in favor of affirmative action for women, African-Americans, and other minorities. What the public opposes are quotas and set-asides, which we’ve already established don’t exist. In fact, the longer affirmative action programs exist, the more popular they become, across the political spectrum:
Divides on some once-contentious issues also appear to be closing. In 1995, 58% said they favored affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better jobs. That percentage has risen steadily since, and stands at 70% in the current poll. Gains in support for affirmative action have occurred to almost the same extent among Republicans (+8), Democrats (+10), and Independents (+14).
6. Bans have had troubling consequences
After California passed its ban (nearly identical to what’s proposed in Oklahoma), state-funded domestic violence shelters and breast cancer screening programs were subsequently sued. California’s ban and SQ 759 are supposed to exempt, “qualifications based on sex that are reasonably necessary,” for instance restricting breast cancer screening programs to only women. But that’s not what happened. Overly broad language leaves state courts with sweeping authority over interpretation and enforcement, and they’ve applied affirmative action bans beyond their original writing.
The consequences have been far-reaching – affecting school science and math initiatives, summer and after-school programs, and college scholarships (even privately-funded, since they’re operated and administered by the state). Consequences are not limited to programs that primarily serve women or people of color, i.e. the Boy Scouts of America maintain numerous partnerships with state and local governments to use public school buildings and state parks and campgrounds.
7. The playing field is still not level
Overt racism and sexism have certainly faded over the years, but significant barriers persist for women and people of color. The weight of the evidence is indisputable. People of color earn lower wages, experience widespread hiring discrimination, and are unemployed in Oklahoma at much higher rates than White workers, at every level of educational attainment. The chart below from Economic Policy Institute presents Labor Department data on race and unemployment in the U.S. for people with a college degree:
Both intentional and de facto discrimination against people of color is alive and well in the state. Racism and xenophobia are still aired publicly, even by elected officials. On the floor of the State House last year, Rep. Sally Kern explained that people of color and African-Americans weren’t hard-working and expected “it” to be given to them. Sen. Ralph Shortey told CNN reporters that,
Culturally, Shortey said, Oklahoma isn’t changing. Latino residents “are not assimilating and enriching the culture of Oklahoma. They are invading the culture,” Shortey said. “Oklahoma is not the melting pot…(Latinos are) not doing their culture any favors when it’s shoved into Oklahomans’ faces.”
Everyone is better off when our institutions reflect our population. For instance, diverse student bodies produce better educational outcomes across the board, not just for minority students. Oklahomans deserve a public sector that affords equal access to all its residents, not so-called ‘color-blind’ policies that preserve and perpetuate status quo discrimination. SQ 759 is unnecessary, draconian, and a giant leap backwards for Oklahoma.