Utah has the opportunity to lead the nation, and the world, as humanity negotiates the problems of the 21st century.
We have enviable assets and valuable raw materials. We have striking public lands, opportunities in renewable energy, an energetic and philanthropic business community and top-flight health care systems and institutions of higher education. Our population is literate, appreciative of the arts and sciences and welcoming of the stranger, generally speaking.
Not that anyone would know any of that by watching the actions of our political class.
We should be soaking up the nomadic talent that is fleeing the overcrowding and high costs of California and New York, seeding news homes for both start-ups and Fortune 500 corporations that are increasingly shifting to low-carbon, low-impact, sustainable development.
Yet, we hear Ford Motor Company didn’t consider Utah at all for producing its new line of electric pickup trucks. Apple’s decision to expand domestic production across the United States — investing $430 billion and adding 20,000 new jobs — seems not to have given Utah a second look.
It starts with our underfunded schools, our determination to stick to a fossil-fuel economy and despoil public lands and a reputation, not fully deserved, for being hostile to minorities and newcomers.
Look at the embarrassing doings of our elected leaders in just the past week. The Republican super-majority of our Legislature went out of its way to send strong signals that Utah is backward flyover country and wants to stay that way.
Lawmakers did a decent job of divvying up $1.6 billion in federal money sent our way as part of the COVID-19 relief effort, prioritizing education, mental health, affordable housing and water conservation. If they had stopped there and gone home, it would have been a good day’s work.
But, no. Legislative leadership, admittedly cowed by a flood of emails and social media outrage from a very vocal minority, hung around the Capitol long enough to propose, debate and approve a set of resolutions that makes them and, by association, the rest of the state look foolish. Not to mention opposed to the 21st century.
Members felt enough pressure from a small right-wing posse that, even though they admitted they had no idea what “critical race theory” even is, they passed strongly worded resolutions opposing it. The resolutions are meant to push the Utah State Board of Education to take the lead in this political snipe hunt.
The middle bits of the resolutions basically contradict their labels. The fine print in Senate Resolution 901 and House Resolution 901 opposes the idea that any race is superior to any other, says that discrimination on the basis of race is wrong and that no one should teach that “that an individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race.”
Whether legislators know it or not, whether they care or not, those ideas are fully sympathetic to critical race theory.
If we are lucky, if our teachers, principals and school boards are strong, the resolutions won’t matter. Our teachers will teach what they were going to teach anyway, including the parts of our history that include shameful acts of racism, many of them cooked into our laws and embedded in our culture.
If we are not lucky, and the actions of the Legislature give little reassurance on that score, the news heard by people on all sides of the question is that Utah is officially opposed to talking about race in schools.
That any time any teacher addresses slavery, the Civil War, a century of Jim Crow or the still-incomplete Civil Rights Movement, the wrath of the Fox News-inspired far right will come down on the schools for supposedly inculcating in our innocent children some bushwa about how white people are evil and should be ridden with guilt.
That’s no way to attract good people to be teachers. Or to attract creative class entrepreneurs to the Silicon Slopes.
The same is true of the House and Senate resolutions talking up the idea of Utah being a “Second Amendment Sanctuary,” taking even half-way seriously the idea that we can interpose our own laws between ourselves and federal statutes. Ever since Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman took his little stroll through Georgia, federal laws have been supreme.
Utah would benefit from some more assertive leadership from the governor’s office, in the view of the editorial board.
Gov. Spencer Cox did keep the divisive race and weapons topics off his official call for the special session, rightly seeing them as hot button issues that needed to cool down. And despite his well-placed concern, despite his growing national profile, Cox seems no more able than his predecessor to truly lead the state.
He seems content to let the unrepresentative representatives in the Legislature drive, navigate and provide the entertainment on the bus.
Utah’s many civic, intellectual, scientific and commercial achievements are worthy of our pride. But none of them would be possible were we not part of the United States of America, not just its government but its society and its commerce.
We can lead the nation, or we can turn our backs on it.