OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — While the nation's highest court ponders the use of race in college admissions, Oklahoma voters will decide next month whether to prohibit any affirmative action programs in state government.
State Question 759, a Republican-backed proposal approved by Oklahoma lawmakers last year, would specifically ban any programs in government employment, education or contracting that give preferred treatment based on race, gender, ethnicity or national origin. Supporters say affirmative action programs, first implemented in the 1960s to provide equal opportunities for minorities and women, are no longer needed, while opponents maintain racism and sexism still exists and that eliminating such programs would move the state backward.
"The only way we're going to get past racism and get people not to see the color difference is to get our government to lead by example," said state Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Kingfisher, who sponsored the proposal in the Legislature.
Ryan Kiesel, the director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the group opposes the ban and questioned whether Republicans placed the question on the ballot in part to help drive white, conservative voters to the polls.
"You have to wonder if politics are behind the motivation to put this on the ballot," Kiesel said. "I think this is an unnecessary state question. I think the negative impacts of it are much greater than any of the purported positives that the supporters are putting on the table."
The ballot question in Oklahoma comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a case involving a white Texas student, Abigail Fisher, who contends she was discriminated against when the University of Texas did not offer her a spot in 2008 because of its program that considers race in college admissions. The high court, which is expected to rule on the case next summer, heard arguments in the case Oct. 10.
But in Oklahoma, state officials say racial preference programs like those in place at the University of Texas already have been abolished and that passage of the state question here will have little effect, other than to eliminate a handful of scholarships at public universities that target women and minorities. The question specifically allows exemptions for programs in place because of existing court orders or consent decrees or when affirmative action is needed to keep or obtain federal funds.
"Our practices will stay the same regardless," said Shelley Reeves, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, the state agency that oversees both state hiring and contracting. "In practice, we're comfortable with the hiring practices that we employ in providing the state with a diverse workforce ... and based on the way that we interpret the resolution, there would be no change in the bidding practice."
The ballot measure in Oklahoma is based on similar proposals that already have passed in California, Michigan, Nebraska, Washington and, most recently, Arizona in 2010.
The measures have been spearheaded by Ward Connerly, the founder and president of the nonprofit American Civil Rights Institute, who argues that the time for affirmative action programs, implemented in the 1960s under President John F. Kennedy, has ended.
"I think that the initiative in Oklahoma is one whose time has come," said Connerly, who recently visited with civic organizations in Oklahoma City to build support for the proposal.
Most of the studies into how these measures affect states come from California and Washington, which put the bans in place in the 1990s. According to a 2012 study by the Henderson Center for Social Justice at the University of California's Berkeley School of Law, state contracts to women and minority-owned businesses in California dropped by more than 50 percent after the affirmative action ban was implemented.
The study also notes that data from Washington shows a similar decline in transportation construction awards after that state passed its ban in 1998 and that there was a dramatic drop in minority applicants at the University of Washington. The number of African American, Hispanic and Native American students applying to elite law schools in several states that banned affirmative action, including California and Washington, also declined, the study notes.
And while those impacts may not be felt in a state like Oklahoma, which doesn't use racial or gender preferences in college admissions or contracting, the proposal could still have negative implications for race relations in the state, said Michael Sumner, who helped author the 2012 study.
"One of the things we've found in our research is that people become afraid of both violating the law accidentally as well as just becoming afraid to talk about race and ethnicity and gender," Sumner said. "Part of this chilling impact is that it creates an environment where even bringing up these issues at all, people become fearful."