Utah’s only Black lawmaker speaks out against colleagues’ attacks on diversity efforts

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said Friday that the communities of color in Utah don’t feel safe and she doesn’t know what to tell them.

Utah’s only Black lawmaker says she’s exhausted from constantly pushing back against her colleagues’ attacks on diversity and equity efforts in the state.

On Friday, the Republican-led House passed its latest bill in that battle — HB451 — which seeks to ban schools from asking an applicant anything about their work to further inclusion, including those applying for a job or a college or K-12 program.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said from the floor that she doesn’t understand where the animosity toward DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion, is coming from.

“I don’t know what we’re doing any more,” she said. “… I don’t know what the fear is.”

Hollins said her phone has been blowing up lately with messages from constituents and those from Utah’s communities of color asking her what’s happening and why they’re being targeted by legislation this year. One text, she read, questioned: “What is going on at the Capitol right now?” A doctor trying to recruit students of color to go into medicine wanted to know if she felt this was a safe place.

“I don’t know what to tell them,” she added. “I don’t know what to tell my community any more. I don’t know how to make them feel safe any more.”

Despite Hollins’ impassioned plea, the House voted to pass HB451 on a 58-14 vote, split on party lines with Democrats in opposition.

Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, the bill’s sponsor, said she’s heard from constituents being asked on job applications and for graduate programs to provide a statement of commitment for what they’ve done to improve diversity, equity and inclusion and how they’ll continue those efforts. She called the requirement “an imposition of political beliefs” and believes candidates are being asked to prove they’re not prejudiced.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are good words on their own. I think we can all agree with that,” she said. “But they have become hot topics in politics.”

Two representatives spoke in support, with Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, saying it’s not appropriate to ask those questions for a job, just as a candidate wouldn’t be asked about religion or philosophy.

Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, said the bill represents a “national agenda item,” adding that staff at universities should be able to think for themselves.

The measure goes next to the Senate for debate.

Another controversial bill that’s been introduced this session is SB283, from Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden. His measure would prohibit any diversity, equity and inclusion offices or officers in Utah’s public colleges and universities. And, if passed, the state would withhold funding for a school until it complies.

Most institutions of higher education in the state have a chief diversity officer or an office on campus that supports inclusion efforts.

SB283 has not yet been heard in committee, though, and with a week left in the session is unlikely to pass.

But Hollins said seeing those proposals, hearing the talk against diversity and watching for the term “critical race theory” to come up week after week has been draining for her.

“If I have to be honest, I’m tired,” she said. “I’m more than tired physically. I’m tired spiritually and mentally from fighting.”

Hollins mentioned state leaders — including the governor — signing the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in 2020, where they acknowledged racism and vowed to fight disparities. That came after a summer of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of police.

Now, the representative said, it feels like that compact is forgotten.

“It seems like we keep taking two steps forward and going five steps back,” Hollins said, adding that her community is concerned. “There’s an effort to get rid of diversity in schools. There’s an effort to get rid of inclusion in schools. I don’t know what to say to them any more. I’m at a loss for words.”