Interim study considers proposed state race and equality commission (Capitol Update)

A short interim study was held last week on Senate Bill 1286 that was introduced by Sen. George Young, D-OKC, at the beginning of last session. The bill would have created a 30-member Oklahoma Commission on Race and Equality to be appointed for five-year terms, eight each by the Governor, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. Six of the 30 members were to be appointed by the Legislative Black Caucus.

Sen. Young noted that his bill was an Oklahoma version of similar commissions in place in other states, and that although it was filed before recent events, “because of the things that have occurred in this nation over the last seven or eight months, we are in search of answers and part of the answer lies in, I believe, legislation such as this.”

The commission would act as a resource and clearinghouse for research and give advice on issues related to racial discrimination and bias to state agencies and employees, communities, organizations, and businesses of Oklahoma that desire it. It would also monitor legislation to determine whether it is discriminatory and would conduct meetings and seminars within the state to support the goals and duties of the commission. The commission was to be staffed by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. Recognizing the apparent futility of requesting state funding for such an effort, the bill created a revolving fund to receive “gifts and donations” contributed to support the work of the commission.

SB 1286 was assigned to the Senate General Government Committee but died in committee when Committee Chair Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Tulsa, refused to hear the bill before the deadline for consideration. Sen. Young was not asking for much, only a beginning, an opportunity for a group of citizens to develop some expertise on racial bias, provide advice, and review legislation: Staffing by an existing state agency and paid for by gifts and donations. 

Those sensitive to issues of racial bias and discrimination could be forgiven for wondering if there will ever be meaningful progress in this generation. It is true some in minority communities have prospered as the result of their own personal efforts and implementation of the civil rights laws of the 1960s. But part of the legal progress of the 1960s has been rolled back by federal courts, including part of the Voting Rights Act and limitations on affirmative action. It seems there are always those willing to take away hard won legislative victories by litigating against policies to level the playing field.

The result last session of Sen. Young’s efforts demonstrates the difficulties in advancing minority interests. Even a commission to research, advise, and monitor for racial bias and discrimination, to be paid for by charity could not find its way on a committee agenda last year in the Oklahoma Senate.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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