Friday, February 26, 2010

No need to look far to find racism in Utah

Representative Curtis Oda (R- Clearfield) surprised a lot of people a couple of weeks ago when he sprung a proposed constitutional amendment to end "preferential treatment" based on "race, sex, color, religion, ethnicity, or national origin," on Democrats at a House standing committee meeting. The text of his resolution had barely been released the day before without much notice to anyone outside of his party. After the resolution passed out of the House committee meeting on a party line vote, Oda arranged to have it heard on the House floor the next business day on the time certain calendar.
Seem pretty quick for a constitutional amendment? It was. And fortunately even a lot of Republicans thought so as well and Oda had to circle the resolution when the time for debate came on the House floor because he didn't have the votes. But now Oda is trying to resurrect the resolution that the SL Tribune described as "plodding through the process" and the Desnews described as "sinking fast."

Most Republicans who oppose the bill oppose it on the ground that the state constitution is a serious, even sacred, document, and any proposed changes to it should be thoroughly vetted and potential consequences closely examined. Oda has been criticized, by both Dems and Republicans alike, for failing to do any of the above. In fact, the resolution was passed out of committee before Oda had even passed it by the Constitional Review Commission. But beyond the protests about Oda's attempt to slip a potential constitutional amendment through the process so quickly, this is a lousy bill, and you don't need to look any further than the Utah State Legislature to understand why.

House Joint Resolution 24: Equal Treatment by Governmen
t, at first glance, may seem like a good resolution. I mean, it calls for a public vote during the next general election to amend the state constitution to "prohibit the State, public institutions of higher education, and political subdivisions from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." Since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington and gave the "I have a Dream Speech," President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and more recently Barack Obama was elected President of the U.S. we've all been taught that racism and discrimination in the U.S. have ended. We're taught that we don't need affirmative action anymore because we all have equal opportunities. If you work hard enough, you can get what you want, we're told. Along these lines, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, told the DesNews that this resolution marks the culmination of the civil rights movement. "This is where we want to go," he said. "This proves that the civil rights movement worked" (circular arguments don't get anymore blatant than that; thanks Rep. Hutchings for a textbook example of a fallacy of argument i can use in my writing classes).

But this is hardly the case, and as i said, we need look no further than our own state legislature for the proof. Let's start with Senator Chris Buttars. I hardly need to recount his racist comments and attitudes, they quite regularly make national headlines. Most famously, in 2008 he compared a bill he didn't like to a "Black baby, . . . a dark ugly thing," then didn't get what all the fuss was about and went on to say that he was being harrassed by a lynch mob, after which he claimed ignorance about the racial history of the term "lynch mob.": “Lynch mob is a Western term. You wouldn't find one person in 10,000 in Utah that thinks that's a racist term," he protested.
Buttars may be the poster child for good 'ol boy racists, but he's not the only one, just the only one who can't censor his mouth enough to keep out of national news. Rep. Carl Wimmer's the kind of guy who refers to immigrants as "those people," and my own Representative, Todd Kiser, told me at one point that he would vote to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students because he didn't want to invite a "south-of-the-border" mentality to Utah. In another instance, a colleague of mine was a bit taken back when after an interview, another representative asked him if he was Hispanic. My colleague replied "no, I'm Chicano," to which the representative replied, "oh, is that like a wetback?" and then left the room.

Racism, and by extension, discrimination still exist in the U.S. For an ugly, and very recent example, look at what is happening on the UC San Diego Campus. But Rep. Oda, and may of his colleagues in the state legislature such as bill co-sponsors Rep. Carl Wimmer and Sen. Margaret Dayton, would have us believe that in actuality, it's white people who are being discriminated against when "preferential treatment" is given to others based on racial or ethnic categories. As reported in the Deseret News and the SLTrib, Oda and Dayton are both convinced that quotas are being used in Utah higher education, though not one of them can supply any specific examples. Oda has consistently provided only ambiguous statements like "I think we all know people who have dealt with this" though he couldn't name names, and "I've given them [opponents to the resolution] all plenty of data about this problem, but they just don't want to recognize it," (as reported by the Desnews).
I had the opportunity to talk to Rep. Oda today, and despite having the financial resources of Ward Connerly behind him and another whole week to prepare, he still coudn't do much better in terms of providing specific examples of reverse discrimination or "preferential treatment" of ethnic or racial groups in college admissions or job hiring. "My people have the data," he kept telling the group of students and I who had approached him outside the House of Representatives, and then he would look around for "his people," but they were nowhere to be found, and neither is his data. "I have a friend, and his son was denied admittance to the medical school because of this, and those friends, they have another friend, and he was too," he told us.
Now i'm academically trained as a folklorist, among other things, and we have a little acronym for this: the FOAF or "freind-of-a-friend." We've all heard plenty of stories that happened to a friend-of-a-friend. In fact, my friend's friend was in Vegas and took a drink from an attractive woman he met at a bar, and next thing he knew he woke up in a bath tub full of ice with one less kidney. "Look at the audit of the UofU medical school for 2003," he finally told us after failing to find "his people." One of the students quickly pointed out that was seven years ago.
But beyond the fact that Oda can't provide a single specific example of preferential hiring or admissions, there's a bigger problem here regarding quotas, and it is illustrative of the overall problem with the way whites (and those who benefit from privilege) understand affirmative action and race in the U.S. today. Quotas as a tool for increasing racial diversity have been unconstitutional in the United States for over 30 years since the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke Supreme Court decision in 1978. Yet many whites, at much higher rates than other racial groups, still believe that quotas exist and are used to deny them opportunities.
Recently I did a small, but informative survey of high school and college students from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Of the whites surveyed, 80% believed that affirmative action and reverse discrimination are prevalent and 89% believed that quotas are frequently used in hiring, admissions, and scholarship decisions, although only 38% had personally experienced or knew someone who had experienced reverse discrimination.
That almost 90% of whites surveyed believe that quotas are still used in hiring, admissions, and scholarship decision when quotas have been unconstitutional for more than 30 years is incredible. Whites frequently don't recognize the preferential treatment they get because of their own skin color, but they have no problem seeing a perceived advantage given to other racial or ethnic groups even when it doesn't really exist and hasn't existed for 30+ years. But it is under this rallying cry of reverse discrimination that Oda, and his co-sponsors, Carl Wimmer and Margaret Dayton are pushing forward with this resolution. In so doing, they are exploiting an unfounded "myth" as Rep. David Litvack called it, and as Litvack pointed out in the DesNews, "We are asking voters to amend the constitution based on falsehoods."

On paper HJR24 is a fair resolution. In reality, and understood within the framework of the social and historical context in which it is situated, it is not about equality, it is about further propping up a false notion of meritocracy that does not and has not ever existed in the U.S. (or anywhere else for that matter).

The tagline of the American Civil Rights Coalition, the national organization founded by Ward Connerly who is driving this movement in Utah and the nation, is "race has no place in American Life or Law." Again, understood within the historical context of race and the law in the U.S. this is an ignorant and uninformed affirmation. Race always has had a place in American law, usually in ways that privilege whites and discriminate against just about every minority group. Our legal history is so full of laws that promoted the the explicit discrimination and oppression of racial minority groups to the benefit of whites that i cannot even begin to do it justice here. Even though many of these laws have changed in the last 40 years, their legacy persists. We can hardly expect that 500 years of racial oppression and legally-mandated discrimination, disenfrachisement, and exclusion can be undone in less 40 years.

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