The Arkansas Senate on Thursday narrowly approved legislation aimed at ending affirmative action by state and local agencies, despite warnings that the move would threaten a host of programs ranging from health initiatives to support for historically Black colleges.
The bill approved by the majority-Republican Senate on an 18-12 vote prohibits discrimination or granting preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. The measure, which now heads to the majority-GOP House for a vote, would also apply to public schools and institutions of higher education.
Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan portrayed his proposal, which gives state agencies two years to comply, as an effort to address discrimination.
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“If we are ever going to solve discrimination in the state, it will not be by further discrimination,” said Sullivan, who is white.
But opponents of the measure said the proposal if enacted could threaten dozens of state and local programs, including health care programs aimed at racial minorities and initiatives intended to help women entrepreneurs. Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield said the measure could also affect programs and initiatives that recognize veterans with disabilities as a minority group.
“The ramifications of this bill are great, especially for ethnic minorities, for women and for disabled veterans,” said Chesterfield, who is Black. “Because you’re saying in essence there cannot be programs that address the specific needs of those individuals.”
The bill advanced as GOP governors and lawmakers are pushing for more restrictions on diversity programs and curriculum regarding race. A wide-ranging education bill Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed this week puts into law an executive order she issued prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory at public schools. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing for a ban on diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state colleges.
It also comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a challenge to admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina that use race among many factors in seeking a diverse student body.
Several states already have bans or restrictions on the use of affirmative action. The most recent to enact such a ban was Idaho in 2020.
Six Republicans joined the Senate’s six Democrats in opposing the Arkansas legislation. Every woman and Black member of the Senate voted against the bill.
Democratic Sen. Clarke Tucker, who is white, said the bill as written would also threaten the operations of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, a downtown Little Rock museum operated by the state that focuses on Black history.
“They may not have to close their doors, but the museum will cease to exist as it is right now,” Tucker said.
Sullivan and Republican Attorney General Tim Griffin said they did not believe the prohibition would affect museums.
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“I reviewed this legislation, and the idea that this ban on state-sponsored racial preferences will shut down our museums is ridiculous,” Griffin said 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 would not affect practices required to establish or maintain eligibility for federal funds, and would not invalidate any court orders or consent decrees in effect.
Sanders told reporters she was monitoring the bill as it moves through the Legislature but did not say whether 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,” she said.
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