POSTED ON JUNE 1, 2011:
Callous lawmakers give themselves a hand while only extending one to a few
Whew! There are no reports of injuries so far, resulting from the outbreak of self-congratulations over the 2011 legislative session.
No torn rotator cuffs from excessive back patting. No pulled muscles from celebratory back-flips. No dislocated jaws from the platitude pandemic.
Of course, just because state leaders assert it was the greatest session since the dawn of civilization doesn't make it so.
In truth, the 53rd Legislature's First Act wasn't fabulous for many middle-class and poor Oklahomans -- but it was especially bad for minorities.
From attacking affirmative action to disbanding the Indian Affairs Commission, the state's elected leadership sent a less-than-welcoming message to an outside world that is increasingly pivotal to Oklahoma's economic well-being and success.
Not only did lawmakers disband the Human Rights Commission as a standalone entity, but state Rep. Sally Kern also recycled her venom, this time with a tirade against blacks and women on the House floor that secured her an official reprimand.
Even first-year Gov. Mary Fallin got in the act by terminating gubernatorial ethnic advisory councils that helped weave Hispanics, Arab-Americans and Asian Americans into the fabric of Oklahoma's civic culture.
"What year is this?" muses Scott J. Hamilton (no relation), executive director of the Cimarron Alliance Foundation, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group that fights for social justice in Oklahoma. "Sometimes I feel like I've been plopped into an old movie somewhere."
One of the few bright spots this session was when lawmakers rejected the latest anti-immigrant screed, an effort to out-Arizona Arizona's demand-their-papers approach to what is, and always will be, a federal problem.
But the mere fact that legislators gave serious consideration to such mean-spirited legislation fuels a knee-jerk perception that Oklahoma isn't as accommodating to other cultures, faiths and races as other states.
There are clearly more than a few Oklahomans who don't see this as a problem. They are convinced this state has the corner on wisdom. Outsiders eventually will come to realize the error of their ways.
As an Okie who's lived in four other states during my lifetime, I truly believe that our neighbors are, generally speaking, among the nicest, kindest, gentlest folk around. But that reality is often drowned out by noisiest extremes, often pursuing their worst instincts -- sometimes from elective office.
Not too long ago, former Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor told me a troubling story of the state's quest to land Boeing's 787 assembly plant. During final negotiations, a Boeing representative said: "Our supplies are from countries all around the world. How welcoming can Tulsa be to a diverse supplier body?"
Tulsa was the only suitor, Taylor noted, asked the "welcoming" question, suggesting -- trumpeting? -- that Oklahoma has an image problem, at least in some quarters.
The 2011 Legislature did the state no favors. Many of the decisions that led to closing ethnic and minority agencies or panels were couched in financial terms -- a $500 million budget hole required spending cuts, period.
But the state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, gave an editorial glimpse of the real issue here: " ... these councils were of questionable value. One of them offered a state-funded platform for members to spew offensive statements about the views of average Oklahomans on immigration policy."
Aha! The problem was that people who may look, sound and -- gasp! -- think differently about public policy were afforded a platform to "spew offensive statements about the views of average Oklahomans."
As state Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, put it, during debate over the affirmative action, "Oklahoma is a great state -- as long as you fit the profile."
If giving someone a platform to "spew offensive statements" is verboten, then Kern deserved much worse fate than a slapped wrist. She should have been expelled from the House. Or to carry the paper's logic to its Neanderthal extreme, perhaps a public flogging was in order.
This is not to suggest that debating the merits of the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission or Indian Affairs Commission is out of bounds. But these agencies -- as well as the governor's ethnic advisory councils -- need to be considered in a larger context:
What message are we sending to the greater world? How will it affect our ability to be serious players in the global marketplace? Is eliminating them -- or, as in the case of the Human Rights Commission, folding it into the attorney general's office -- worth the cost to a state already battling image problems?
The state will still be spending about $600,000 a year on the Human Rights Commission, even though it will be under the AG's purview. Eliminating the Indian Affairs Commission will save nearly $200,000 a year -- but it seems to ignore the fact that Oklahoma is home to 39 federally-recognized tribes and the nation's second largest American Indian population.
Even GOP Rep. Paul Wesselhoft's proposed compromise that the state create a cabinet secretary for Indian affairs in the governor's office -- a sign, at least, that we value the relationship between state and tribal governments -- was rejected.
Perhaps the worst example, though, of this callousness toward minorities involved the defeat of a proposal that would have added cyber-bullying to the state's definition of bullying and required school districts to establish a bullying policy.
It would seem like a no-brainer, especially after the death last year of 11-year-old Perkins resident Ty Fields, whose parents believe he was driven to suicide because of bullying.
The bullying proposal was defeated because lawmakers claimed it was an unfunded mandate on public schools and that additional training to identify and deal with training was unnecessary. But there's another reason the bill didn't survive -- as it wound through the legislative process, it included at one point language that would have added sexual orientation to the state's anti-bullying statute along with learning disabilities and physical appearance.
Hamilton, the Cimarron Alliance executive director, says his group worked with the Tulsa Children's Consortium and others to help get the legislation passed -- but somehow his group wasn't notified of meetings to discuss the measure.
"It was always, 'Oh, we forgot to call you,'" he said.
A clerical error or evidence of homophobia? Either way, Oklahoma's children were the losers. And so was Oklahoma's image. Our state's future depends on giving everyone -- regardless of race, creed, color, faith or sexual orientation -- an equal shot at the table.
One way to start is to be considerate of, and to get to know, those whom we perceive to be different.
--(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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