Legislative Black Caucus, Jonesboro senator grapple over bill that aims to end affirmative action in Arkansas

The Arkansas flag is shown in this file photo.

Several members of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus clashed with Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, on Monday over his bill that he said is aimed at ending affirmative action in state and local governments in Arkansas.

Sullivan said he was an employee and an employer in the public and private sectors for about 35 years and “I was never called a racist during that time.

“A matter of a fact, people sought me out as a leader because I was fair across the board,” he said during an hour-long discussion with Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus about the bill. “It was not until I got in he Legislature that I got that label, and I reject that label. I reject that this is a racist bill.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to effectively end affirmative action in college admissions in a ruling sometime this year , Sullivan said.

“So our state is definitely moving in the direction of backing off affirmative action,” he said.

“It is time to have this conversation,” Sullivan said. “I don’t know if the bill will pass or not. I don’t know how much support there is in the Senate actually or the House to this bill. … I am very interested today if somebody has a plan on how to end affirmative action or end discrimination. If you have a plan on that, I would like to hear it.”

Sen. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, said Senate Bill 71will impact some people in a detrimental way.

“I am kind of sad to hear you say that you are going to put it on the Black Caucus to file a bill to end discrimination when we are the people that are being discriminated against,” he said. “How would you put it on us to bring a bill to end discrimination?”

In response Sullivan said “I think it is incumbent upon all of us to do that.

“The purpose of me being here today is to hear people who have an opposing view,” he said,” and I think it is incumbent upon all of us to sit down and have a conversation."

Sullivan said “I think it is incumbent upon on all of us — the white caucus, the Asian caucus, whatever caucus you want to have — we have got to sit around the table and see what the parameters are to end it because I think we can.”

But Love said the bill doesn’t end discrimination.

“This is the bill to end the programs that were implemented so that it could be a level playing field,” he said.

SB71, sponsored by Sullivan, cleared the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee last week, after the committee voted to add a nine-page amendment to the original two-page bill. A week ago, Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, suggested the bill sends a message that racism and sexism are over in Arkansas, but Sullivan disputed that and said he doesn’t believe that to be the case

Sullivan told the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus on Monday he promised the Senate last week that “we would wait at least a week to hear from various community members and other legislators before we ran it on the floor,” so he has agreed to meet with various groups with concerns about the bill this week.

SB71 would define the state as the state of Arkansas, a city, county, an institution of higher education, a public school district, public special school district, or a political subdivision or governmental instrumentality of the state.

“The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, an individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in matters of state employment, public education, or state procurement,” under a section of the bill, which states that it would only apply to an action taken after the effective date of the measure.

The bill states this section of the bill doesn’t prohibit the following matters:

• Consideration by the state of bona fide qualifications based on gender that are reasonably necessary to the normal functions of state government, public education or state procurement.

• Invalidate a court order or consent decree that is in force at the effective date of this measure.

• Prohibit an action necessary to establish or maintain eligibility for a federal program if ineligibility would demonstrably result in a loss of federal funds to the state.

• Preempt state discrimination law or federal discrimination law.

Under SB71, a person who negligently violates this section of the bill would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.

Among other things, the bill would repeal the state law requiring all state-supported colleges and universities to establish a program for the retention of blacks and other members of minority groups as students, faculty and staff, and the state law requiring each state-supported institution of higher education to prepare an affirmative action program for the recruitment of blacks and other members of minorities for faculty and staff positions and for enrollment as students.

The measure also would repeal the state law requiring each state department, agency, board, commission and institution of higher education and every constitutional officer to adopt and pursue a comprehensive equal employment hiring program designed to achieve a goal of increasing the percentage of minority employees within the state department, agency, board, commission or institution of higher education and within the constitutional office to a level that approximates the percentage of minorities in the state’s population, and repeal the state law requiring the Department of Education to set goals for increasing the number of teachers and administrators of minority races and ethnicities in the state.