A recent nonscientific survey suggests Oklahoma needs to improve its national reputation for diversity to attract businesses.
There's nothing wrong with promoting a live-and-let-live attitude where reasonable, but to argue that perceptions about diversity are more important than the general business climate — taxes, regulation, workforce, infrastructure — is off base.
The survey sprang from Risha Grant, head of a Tulsa public relations firm. Grant notably used the poll results to criticize State Question 759, which would outlaw affirmative-action programs in state government. So her survey may be mostly a slam on SQ 759 rather than a serious critique of an economic development problem.
Still, Grant's arguments should be addressed. We've noted before that other states have adopted affirmative-action bans, including some far more liberal than Oklahoma, without suffering a perception problem. Grant claims Oklahoma's image has been harmed by high-profile instances like state Rep. Sally Kern's comment that homosexuality was “the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism or Islam.” Likewise, Commerce Secretary Dave Lopez says one firm had to be assured that one person's intolerant statement doesn't represent the entire state.
In a state with 3.7 million people, someone, somewhere will say something that others find objectionable. We're not fans of Kern's rhetoric, but we doubt that her views are derailing economic growth. If inflammatory language were a job killer, entertainers in California and New York would have single-handedly devastated those states' business climates.
Comedian Bill Maher routinely denigrates women with vulgarisms we can't print. Must California economic development officials assure business leaders that not all of their state is a hotbed of intolerance toward women? We doubt it. And Maher has a national TV show. Most people, including Oklahomans, couldn't pick Kern out of a lineup. If Maher's comments have no impact, there's no reason to credit Kern or other local individuals with greater national influence.
Furthermore, Oklahoma has a rich cultural history that few states can match. The state's leadership includes people from a wide range of backgrounds who achieved success based on merit, not diversity token-ism. The governor is a woman who faced another female in the election. State Rep. T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, is poised to become the first black speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, is a member of the Chickasaw Tribe. State Sen. Al McAffrey, D-Oklahoma City, is gay. For what it's worth, he previously served alongside Kern in the House, without incident.
If diversity perceptions were a key driver of the economy, California would have low unemployment and strong growth. Instead, it's losing businesses hand over fist due to high taxes and burdensome regulations. Oklahoma has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Quality-of-life issues clearly matter for employee recruitment, but to argue that those making relocation decisions give greater priority to a perception of “diversity” than concrete business considerations is absurd.
Ultimately, Oklahoma's future economic growth relies on entrepreneurs who focus first and foremost on making a profit. If a company executive isn't locked in on that goal, state officials shouldn't waste much time trying to convince that person to set up shop in Oklahoma. They're probably not going to be in business for long anyway.