On Thursday, the Arkansas Senate narrowly approved legislation that was targeted at ending affirmative action by local and state agencies, despite cautions that the move might threaten an array of programs ranging from support for historically Black colleges to health initiatives.
The Republican-majority Senate approved the legislation by an 18-12 vote and prohibits granting preferential treatment or discrimination based on color, race, sex, national origin, or ethnicity. The measure now heads to a GOP-majority House for a vote and would also apply to higher education institutions and public schools.
GOP Senator Dan Sullivan characterized his proposal, which gives state agencies two years to comply, as an attempt to focus on addressing discrimination.
“If we are ever going to solve discrimination in the state, it will not be by further discrimination,” said Sullivan.
However, opponents of the measure say if the proposal is enacted, it may threaten dozens of local and state programs, including initiatives meant to help women entrepreneurs and health care programs directed at racial minorities.
Linda Chesterfield, a Democratic Senator, said the legislation could additionally affect initiatives and programs that acknowledge veterans with disabilities as a minority group.
“The ramifications of this bill are great, especially for ethnic minorities, women, and disabled veterans,” Chesterfield said. “Because you’re saying, in essence, there cannot be programs that address the specific needs of those individuals.”
GOP lawmakers are pushing for more restrictions on curriculum, diversity programs
The legislation advanced as Republican lawmakers and governors are pushing for more restrictions on curriculum regarding race as well as diversity programs. A sweeping education bill Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed this week into law is an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory at public schools.
The Arkansas ban comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the Harvard and University of North Carolina admissions programs that use race and other factors to create a diverse student body.
Numerous states have already enacted restrictions or bans on using affirmative action. The most recent to legislate a ban was Idaho in 2020. Six Republicans joined six Senate Democrats in opposing the Arkansas legislation. Every Black member and woman of the Senate voted against the bill.
Dem Senator Clarke Tucker said the bill would threaten the operations of a downtown Little Rock museum, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, operated by the state and focuses on Black history.
“They may not have to close their doors, but the museum will cease to exist as it is right now,” said Tucker.
Republican Attorney General Tim Griffin and Sullivan said they do not think the prohibition would affect museums.
“I reviewed this legislation, and the idea that this ban on state-sponsored racial preferences will shut down our museums is ridiculous,” said Griffin in a statement. “In fact, this bill will bring our state in line with constitutional principles that I expect the U.S. Supreme Court to reiterate soon.”
Sullivan’s proposal wouldn’t affect practices required to maintain or establish eligibility and wouldn’t invalidate consent decrees or any court orders in effect. Sanders said she was keeping tabs on the bill as it makes its way through the legislature but wouldn’t know if she supports it.
“We’ll see what the final product looks like and weigh in once we have a final piece of legislation as it goes through the House,” said Sullivan.