The Spectacle Blog

Tennessee GOP Caves to Education Establishment on Civil Rights Language

By on 4.22.13 | 3:47PM

When you’re the Republican governor of a state with a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature, you should be able to pass a bill that outlaws race and gender quotas. But right now that’s not happening in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam, and other Republican leaders, appear to have been pressured into submission by the education establishment.

That’s what Ward Connerly, president of the American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), suspects. He credits Sen. Jim Summerville, a Republican, for pushing a bill that would prohibit government officials from discriminating on the basis of race, sex and ethnicity. Unfortunately, Summerville was undercut by his own party members. Over time, Connerly anticipates that Tennessee will ultimately pass meaningful legislation, but not in the current session.

A “hostile amendment” was made in the state House with the word "soley," which “radically alters the effect of the bill,” Connerly explained in an email message. “The word ‘solely’ maintains the status quo.  It preserves the myth that race is just one of many factors.”

Here’s the problem with the amended language.

Sen. Summerville’s original bill, which passed in the State Senate with 25 ayes and only four no votes, read: “No preference shall be granted to any candidate for a position in state government based on the candidate's race, gender, or ethnicity."

But one word can change the entire meaning of a bill. Over on the House side, the State and Local Government Committee rendered the entire bill ineffective with following language:

“No preference shall be granted to any candidate for a position in state government based solely on the candidate's race, sex, or ethnicity” – meaning preferences can still be given out so long as race, sex or ethnicity are included as just one of several factors.

Connerly, a former regent with the University of California, led the effort to pass an amendment to that state’s constitution outlawing race and gender based discrimination. California’s Proposition 209 served as a model for other civil rights initiatives that have become law in Washington State, Arizona, Michigan, and Oklahoma, to name a few.

Although the initiatives have passed by large margins, with support from rank-and-file members of major parties, they do require political will. That’s what went missing in Tennessee when state lawmakers used the amendment process to alter language that had initially established equality before the law. Connerly has singled out Gov. Haslam and Republican Speaker of the House Beth Harwell for criticism.

“It is clear from this chain of events that the governor and the speaker of the House were not supportive of the bill,” Connerly wrote.  “It is significant that even with a supermajority, none of the bills could pass the legislature. Senator Summerville will reintroduce legislation next year to end preferences. We will assist him.”

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