The Hill: Republican governors should end racial preferences at the state level

January 05, 2024 | By ERIN WILCOX , DANIEL DEW
Texas Capitol building, iconic dome symbolizing state pride.

GOP governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Alabama’s Kay Ivey have been making splashy headlines for attacking diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards at companies like BlackRock and Disney. But the laws of their own states allow racial preferences in education, employment and public contracting. Before telling private companies how to do business, governors should get their own houses in order by working with their respective legislatures to end racial preferences and ensure equal treatment for all citizens.

In Florida, DeSantis’s home state, any county, municipality, community college or district school board can legally set aside up to 10 percent or more of its budget for goods and services only for minority-owned businesses. Other companies are forbidden from even bidding on those contracts — simply because of the business owner’s race.

In Texas, although Gov. Greg Abbott made a good start this year by shuttering college DEI offices and warning public agencies and universities to stop using racial preferences in hiring, state law still gives preference to minority and women-owned businesses in purchasing and public works contracts. Texas also sets statewide goals for agencies that can only be met by awarding a percentage of every public contract based on the owner’s race or gender, instead of which company can do the best job at the lowest price. Texas does not prohibit cities from adding their racial preference programs into public contracts, leaving small business owners to take on powerful cities like Houston to protect their right to equal treatment.

And in Alabama, while Ivey forced out the head of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education over a “woke” teacher training book, her state has 15 public boards or commissions that reserve certain seats only for women or minorities.

Each of these state laws enshrining state-mandated unequal treatment affects far more people and costs millions more dollars than any private-sector DEI or ESG policy ever could. Governors must address this problem, and soon.

Iowa is the only state in the country with a law requiring every public board and commission to have an equal number of men and women. After combing through each state’s 256 public boards and commissions, a panel launched by Gov. Kim Reynolds concluded that Iowa’s gender balance law frequently prevents qualified people from serving on a public board simply because that board has already filled its quota of women (or men). The panel recommended repealing the discriminatory law, and Reynolds has already committed to filing legislation to advance the panel’s recommendations in the upcoming legislative session.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin made opposing racial discrimination by proxy in a popular public high school a key issue last year. Though the General Assembly ultimately passed only a watered-down version of a bill intended to prohibit school districts from using racial proxies (such as geography) to decide who gets in or stays out of elite public schools, the Youngkin administration kept up the pressure by launching a high-profile investigation of a school district accused of discrimination and leading a coalition of states in support of a lawsuit that seeks to end this practice once and for all.

Arkansas came close to passing legislation earlier this year that would have ended state-sponsored discrimination, but the bill died in the Republican-led House.

The solution is clear: Pass legislation to repeal these discriminatory race and gender preferences and replace them with laws protecting equality. Our organization, Pacific Legal Foundation, has done the work already, drafting model bills to end state racial discrimination and its sneaky sidekick, proxy discrimination.

These bills ensure that every citizen is treated as a unique individual and not judged by the color of their skin. They also promote merit, reward hard work and get the best bang for the taxpayer’s buck. These are the values voters will always care about, long after the headlines fade.

It’s time for DeSantis, Abbott, Ivey and others to put their words into action and scrub their state laws clean of unfair and unconstitutional racial discrimination.

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill on December 13, 2023.