The daughter of revered civil rights leader Clara Luper told a crowd at Langston University that a proposed constitutional amendment to ban affirmative action programs in the state would set back her mother's work of remedying inequalities.
“It's hard to win a race when you start out behind. It's hard to have equal pay as a woman,” Marilyn Luper Hildreth said. “If it was fair and it was equal we wouldn't even have to worry about it. We would not have to be here tonight, but we are not naive enough to think that things have really changed.”
Oklahoma voters will decide in November whether to prohibit the use of affirmative action in state government hiring practices, contracting and education.
The authors of legislation to put State Question 759 on the ballot say affirmative action is no longer needed and that state jobs and contracts, and seats at colleges and universities should go to the most qualified applicants regardless of race.
“I think that as a state we should not be discriminating or giving preferential treatment to anyone simply on the color of their skin or their sex,” said Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Yukon, the primary author of the proposed amendment. “As a state we need to be leading by the example that we don't recognize differences in people except for by their qualifications.”
Oklahoma law currently does not allow for quotas when hiring or awarding contracts. And the state's public universities don't use race as a factor during the admissions process.
However, the Office of Equal Opportunity Workforce Diversity, a part of the Office of Personnel Management, tracks diversity in state government and requires each state agency to submit affirmative action plans.
An analysis of 33,405 employees in 115 reporting state agencies found that overall Oklahoma hires minorities at a slightly lower rate than the public sector, but hires women at a higher rate.
According to the report, 77.4 percent of Oklahoma state employees are white and 56.9 percent are female.
However, there are significantly fewer Hispanic individuals employed in state government than are employed in the Oklahoma private sector.
According to the annual report produced by the Office of Equal Opportunity Workforce Diversity, Hispanic employees account for 2.7 percent of the state workforce, while the private sector employs roughly 4.5 percent.
Ruben Aragon, executive director of the Latino Community Development Agency, said this is one of several attempts by lawmakers to limit the growth and role of the Hispanic population in Oklahoma.
“The laws are some directed towards let's have fear and exclusion. We need to change that to opportunity and inclusion,” Aragon said. “But the opportunity has to be more than just for employers. Employers see the opportunity, the opportunity to exploit.”
He said those opportunities don't exist, and pointed to the hard labor of roofing that Hispanic workers are often left to perform.
“It's nowhere near a level playing field,” he said.
Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, said his main concern was not over hiring practices but the contracts the state awards to minority-owned business.
“We just need to look at the merits of a person, or when awarding a state contract, the merits of business, rather than the color of their skin,” Shortey said. “People need to be rewarded on what they do or don't do, not on what they were born as.”
Shortey said as someone who is half Sioux he would far prefer to be awarded a contract because of the merits of his work rather than his race.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation aims to award 9 percent of its contracts to businesses owned by people of color and women. That goal was met in 2010, exceeded in 2008 and 2011, and missed in 2009.