TN Senator Proposes To Cut State Diversity Programs—in the Name of MLK

Amien Essif

Who is Jim Summerville? If you ask him, he might say he’s a civil rights leader fighting the movement’s “last battle.” But most Tennesseans know him better as the Republican state senator who introduced a series of bills on January 10 intending to eliminate state diversity programs. Together the bills would, according to Summerville, abolish the job category of “diversity officer” at public colleges and universities; end race, gender, and ethnicity considerations in hiring at K-12 public schools; and prohibit the state government from keeping statistics on race, gender and ethnicity.
“It pleases me to think of these proposed laws as the Civil Rights Initiative of 2013,” wrote Summerville in a January 22 editorial in the The Tennessean. “It’s time to say: Preferences may have had a use a half-century ago….But now that preferences have served their purpose, they’ve become onerous and invidious…. Only character, intelligence and hard work matter now.” In the editorial, Summerville even invokes a former civil rights leader’s memory: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. hoped to live to see an America where his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” … Let Tennessee, where he died, become the first state in the South to realize his vision in law. In an official response, the United Campus Workers (UCW), which represents public university employees across the state and supports campus anti-racism initiatives, warned that they will oppose the legislation “at every turn.” UCW Knoxville president Tom Anderson tells In These Times that while the University of Tennessee is very vocal about their diversity programs, the “diversity is just not there and it’s really not improving.” Attacking affirmative action at this point, he says, is “an absurdity.” Anderson says that the UCW has a strict policy to take any “clearly racist” legislation seriously, and the union plans to lobby against the legislation in March before it goes up for a vote. It is not likely, however, that Summerville’s proposal will have much effect, except by way of the controversy it generates. “Every year,” writes Chas Sisk, reporter for Nashville’s The Tennesseean, “the Tennessee legislature produces a handful of bills that draws attention that far exceeds their likelihood of passing.” He points out that Summerville has yet to find a co-sponsor in the House and that, were the bill passed, federal courts would likely find it unconstitutional. Still, with a Republican supermajority in the house and senate, plus a GOP governor, anything is possible. Whatever happens, the so-called “Civil Rights Initiative of 2013” highlights the hostile climate in which Tennessee’s diversity campaigns must operate. State lawmakers routinely levy accusations of “reverse discrimination” at public programs and file transparently discriminatory legislation, most famously in 2011 when the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill (which has resurfaced this week) passed the state Senate. In opposition to Summerville’s bill, the Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBT rights group, coordinated rallies on January 24 at three university campuses across Tennessee, including Austin Peay University, where Summerville was an adjunct instructor before assuming his current office. A press release from the organizers said the proposed bills “would hurt Tennessee schools in regional and national rankings, and diminish efforts to make Tennessee’s schools reflect the growing diversity of Tennessee’s population.”
Amien Essif is a regular contributor to Working In These Times and maintains a blog called The Gazine, which focuses on consumerism, gentrification, and technology with a Luddite bent. His work has also appeared on the Guardian and CounterPunch. You can find him using Twitter reluctantly: @AmienChicago
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