A coalition of Utah community groups is mobilizing to stop a proposed amendment to Utah's constitution that would bar any affirmative-action policy in schools, workplaces or government services.
HJR24 passed out of a Utah House committee Feb. 11, one day after it was introduced, and awaits action by the full House. If passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, it could appear on the ballot as soon as November.
Speakers at an educational forum organized Saturday at Salt Lake City's Horizonte Instructional Center told an audience of about 60 that they must spread the word that affirmative action is not "reverse racism" -- as labeled by those backing HJR24 -- but a tool to foster equality that benefits everyone.
"The people at the greatest risk from not having diversity are white people," said William Smith, associate professor of educational policy at the University of Utah, who is black. "You're at risk of being culturally and civilly retarded. ... If you put all of your savings in one area, you're bankrupt. I'm talking culturally bankrupt."
Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, the sponsor of HJR24, calls affirmative action a failure.
"You're promoting discrimination to stop discrimination," Oda said in a phone interview Saturday. "You're telling these people, 'You're not good enough to do it on your own. Let's just hand it to you.'"
Oda cited statements from national conservative activist Ward Connerly, who visited Utah to lobby for HJR24, that a similar ban in Connerly's home state of California has had no negative repercussions.
People at Saturday's forum disputed that notion. One cited a lawsuit against the state of California that demanded an end to state support of programs -- including domestic-violence shelters and breast-cancer treatment facilities -- because they favored women.
Other speakers warned that educational programs, health-care access and state contracts designed to give women and ethnic minorities the same chance for success as white males could be eliminated.
The forum included a bit of theatricality when Josie Valdez, former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. There was also a bit of contention, when members of the audience sparred verbally with former Salt Lake County GOP chairman James Evans, who said he is undecided on HJR24 but decried what he saw as "misunderstandings of what this bill will do."
Oda introduced an amended version of HJR24 on Friday afternoon, which calls for a series of public debates on the ballot issue between May and August.
Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, called that plan "a dog-and-pony show." The time for public comment should come before the resolution passes the Legislature, when the measure's language still can be changed, Litvack said.
Oda said he believes the language could still be amended as late as September.
Speakers at Saturday's forum said they will continue to raise awareness of HJR24, and some even urged calling Oda personally to lobby against it.
Litvack counseled anyone calling Oda to "be respectful. If you can't be respectful, don't call him."
The issue's sensitivity is understandable, said veteran Latino activist Archie Archuleta. "Being civil to an uncivil law is very difficult," Archuleta told the forum.