With the “Tennessee Civil Rights Initiative” and related legislation, Sen. Jim Summerville says he is trying to end the last vestiges of discrimination in state government and public education and put everyone on equal footing insofar as race, gender and ethnicity goes.
Following the “mostly peaceful social revolution during the Dr. Martin Luther King era,” Summerville said in an interview, “there may have been a reason for preferences in hiring, in college admissions, in scholarships.”
But not anymore, said the Republican senator from Dickson, an adjunct professor at Austin Peay State University and author of several books involving history research.
“These laws just aren’t needed anymore,” he said. “It’s time to let it all go. We are at another level now.”
Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, president-elect of the National Conference of Black State Legislators, says Summerville is wrong.
“You can’t just wish away poverty or illiteracy or crime,” said Armstrong. “You have to actively work to bring people out of those conditions… Until we do that, there is no mission accomplished.”
Armstrong said that multiple generations of “institutionalized racism” have still left “people of color without equal access in areas ranging from health care to education and there is still a place for state-level affirmative action.
Summerville has a seven-bill package that, collectively, would eliminate affirmative action in k-12 education, higher education and state government generally.
The “civil rights initiative” (SB42) is an umbrella bill that broadly covers most of the subject area. Summerville said that, as a matter of “legislative strategy,” he introduced separate bills on individual topics in hopes that some can be enacted if the broader bill fails.
The six other bills would:
-Prohibit governmental entities from keeping statistics on race, gender or ethnicity unless specifically required by federal law. (SB7)
-Under the title “Higher Education Equity Act,” prohibit state colleges and universities from granting preferences based on race, gender or ethnicity to students, employees or contractors. The bill explicitly repeals a present state law that calls for 10 percent of contracts to be granted to “minority-owned businesses.” (SB8).
-Prohibit public school systems from granting preferences in hiring based on race, gender or ethnicity. Summerville said that exceptions may be warranted in some unusual situations. (SB11)
-Prohibit colleges and universities from using state funds to grant scholarships or loans on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity. (SB43)
The Board of Regents system currently has an “access and diversity grant initiative” with anticipated funding of $1 million this year, according to the board’s website. UT currently has no race-based scholarships or grants, according to Anthony Haynes, UT vice president for government relations and advocacy, though it did for years in accord with settlement of a desegregation lawsuit.
-Prohibit higher education institutions from employing a “diversity officer” or anyone whose “primary responsibilities” include “promoting diversity, equality and inclusion at the institution” or overseeing compliance with “federal laws on diversity or equality.” (SB46)
“I don’t believe anybody thinks higher education institutions are not already diverse now,” said Summerville.
-Prohibit state government generally from granting preferences in hiring. (SB114)
Summerville last year gained statewide attention after presiding over a legislative hearing on reports of grades being changed for students at Tennessee State University. When the chairman of the Legislature’s Black Caucus sent out a statement criticizing the hearing, he sent back an email declaring, “I don’t give a rat’s ass what the Black Caucus thinks.”
Summerville says now that the email was a mistake resulting from a temper flare over the Caucus statement, which made an unwarranted and unfair criticism of a “complete and exhaustive” study. The caucus missive was entitled, “Much Ado About Nothing.”
“I do regret the incident and take my share of blame for losing my temper in public,” he said.
Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, current chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, said he has discussed Summerville’s proposals with other caucus members, some of whom think “we shouldn’t give this guy any credibility by talking about him.” But he said the caucus will have a response later, perhaps after talking with Gov. Bill Haslam in a scheduled meeting next week where Summerville’s bills “may be briefly mentioned.”
Armstrong said affirmative action programs are analogous to government helping victims of a natural disaster such as Hurricane Sandy.
“We in this country are one nation. It’s like being one family,” he said. “Anytime you’ve got members of your family struggling more than the others, you look for ways to bring them up.”
Summerville said his proposals are similar to California’s “proposition 209,” an amendment to the state’s constitution approved in 1996 that says the state government “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”
The California law has been upheld in courts. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing its stance on affirmative action in a case brought by a University of Texas student who says she was denied admission because she is white.
Summerville got the first of his three college degrees from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where in 1969 he was a plaintiff as a student in a lawsuit that led to a federal judge declaring unconstitutional UT restrictions on speakers at student events on campus.
David Gregory, vice chancellor for administration at the Board of Regents, said officials are still evaluating the impact Summerville’s package would have on operations. But he said the bill prohibiting collection of statistics could hurt efforts toward getting more students into college or technical schools.
Statistics are needed to target”underrepresented groups” with information on career opportunities and programs that are available through Regents’ schools, he said.
“There’s a group of students who we know are going to college and a group who we know we are going to be hard pressed to get into college,” Gregory said. “There’s a group in the middle… and this could inhibit our abilities to reach to go after those students who may not know about the opportunities.”
Haynes said earlier this week that he is uncertain of the legislation’s impact on UT operations, but would check and provide more information by Thursday. He did not do so.