Utah leaders sign on to compact acknowledging racism and committing to ending it

‘We can’t sit back and ignore the problem as if somehow it will magically go away,’ said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Governor Gary Herbert takes a moment to address the Multicultural Commission and Martin Luther King Jr. Commission as they meet at the State Office building by the Utah Capitol on Thursday, July 16, 2020, to talk about ways to address systemic racism in the state. At right are Emma E. Houston, Chair of the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission, Byron Russell, Co-Chair of the Multicultural Commission and Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City.

Utah government, business and community leaders began signing on to a new compact Tuesday acknowledging the existence of racism and committing to financial investments and public policy changes to eliminate disparities in the state.

The Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which was unveiled during a news conference on the steps of the state Capitol on Tuesday, comes after a summer of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of police this year.

“The killing of George Floyd [and] other significant events that have happened this past year have, I think, reminded all of us that we have not gotten to the promised land yet,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said during Tuesday’s news conference. “We’re not where we wanted to be or where we should be.”

After a series of protests earlier this summer in Salt Lake City, some of which turned violent, Herbert met with leaders in the Black community — and what he heard during those conversations, he said, was a need to move past dialogue about racism into tangible action addressing disparities.

The state has already made some efforts on that front, he said, noting that members of his Cabinet just completed a six-month racial equity training and that he signed into law a bill banning police chokeholds this summer.

The Utah Compact comes out of those conversations with minority leaders as well, he said. But the governor acknowledged it’s “only the beginning of the work that remains to be done to get us where we ought to be.”

“We can’t sit back and ignore the problem as if somehow it will magically go away,” Herbert added. “We need to be bold. We need to increase our dialogue with our communities of color. We need to have discussions and better understanding. Sometimes we need to listen so we can learn and understand before we can be understood. And we must do it now.”

The compact has five key tenets:

1. Acknowledgment and action: “We acknowledge that racism exists, and our actions make a difference. We call out racism wherever we see it and take purposeful steps to stop it.”

2. Investment: “We invest our time and resources to create greater opportunity for people of color. Eliminating racial and ethnic disparities requires our significant effort and investment.”

3. Public policies and listening: “We advance solutions to racial ills by listening and creating policies that provide equal opportunity and access to education, employment, housing and health care.”

4. Engagement: “We engage to effect change. Broader engagement, equitable representation, and deeper connection across social, cultural and racial lines will uphold the principle — ‘nothing about us, without us.’”

5. Movement, not just a moment: “Utahns unite behind a common goal to create equal opportunity. We affirm our commitment will not just be a passing moment, but a legacy movement of social, racial and economic justice.”

A diverse group of business and community leaders praised the Utah Compact during the news conference Tuesday and expressed an understanding of racism as a structural problem rather than a strictly individual one.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, the state’s only Black lawmaker, spoke during her remarks about her personal experiences with racism, of worrying that her Black husband won’t make it home at night and of having to explain racism to her daughters at an early age.

The compact, she said, is a “first step” toward addressing some of those problems, and one she hopes will send a message to other communities around the United States.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "This is about righting a wrong," said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, who persuaded lawmakers to unanimously approve putting Amendment C on the ballot removing old wording in the state constitution that they say still allows slavery as a punishment for crime.

“It is now time that we make sure that everyone is welcome in our community,” Hollins said. “It is time that wives are no longer laying in their bed at night wondering if their husband is going to come home because of their skin color. It is time that mothers are stopped worrying about their kids, having to explain racism to their kids at a young age. And it is time that women of color in our community have the same access as everyone else.”

Hollins said several of her colleagues in the House and Senate have indicated that they understand the need to address racial disparities and have committed to working alongside her as allies.

The Salt Lake County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to sign on to the compact, though Republican Councilman Richard Snelgrove said he wished it also included protections against religious discrimination.

“I was very excited to see a statewide movement on this issue,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said.

The county is working on its own action plan to address systemic bias and institutional racism. Members of the public are encouraged to provide feedback.

While the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion has received support from a number of elected officials, it also has the backing of members of the business community, who said Tuesday that racism is not an issue for government leaders to tackle alone.

Derek Miller, president of the Salt Lake Chamber, said he sees an “important role” for business leaders in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Words and even the best of intentions will never be enough to accomplish what is necessary,” he said. “We believe diversity and inclusion must be a way of doing business. We must commit to meaningful and sustained action. The Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion is an important step along this path.”

The Chamber is taking other actions to further those aims as well, he noted, including creating a “best practices toolkit” for businesses and planning a summit for employers next year that aims to strengthen the commitment to diversity and inclusion.

During her remarks on the Capitol steps, Gail Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz, offered both a commitment to the Utah Compact and an apology, noting that her perspective on racism has evolved in recent months.

“A few years ago, I stood on the floor of the arena and declared, ‘We are not a racist community,’” she said. “I feel inclined to apologize for that today. I have since learned that we are and we need to face it.”

Miller made those comments during a Jazz game last March, after a Utah fan got into a heated verbal argument with Thunder star Russell Westbrook. Miller is in the process of selling the team to Ryan Smith.

Now, she’s calling for a collective commitment to listen to, learn from and understand minority communities in the state.

“Utah can and must be a leader in becoming a place of unity, hope and opportunity,” Miller said. “We are here today to do our part and commit to the five principles outlined in the compact and I invite everyone in Utah to join us. And hopefully it will spread across the nation. I am here to commit again: we are all in.”

Reporter Leia Larsen contributed to this report