garner and ballinger
Senators Trent Garner and Bob Ballinger are among the sponsors of a bill that would ban talking about systemic racism for state employees and contractors. Brian Chilson

Arkansas Republicans killed any hope for a meaningful hate crimes law getting passed this session, arguing that policing thoughts is beyond their purview. But preventing people from talking about racism and oppression is apparently fair game.

Acknowledging and discussing systemic racism and white privilege would be banned within Arkansas state government and for any contractors paid with state funds under a bill filed April 1.

Advertisement

Senate Bill 627 “TO PROHIBIT THE PROPAGATION OF DIVISIVE CONCEPTS” is sponsored by white male Republican senators Trent Garner (El Dorado), Bob Ballinger (Ozark) and Blake Johnson (Corning). SB 627 is a nearly exact replica of a measure that died in a New Hampshire statehouse committee room last month. The Arkansas bill is also comparable to former President Trump’s now-defunct “critical race theory” order that effectively banned diversity and inclusion training in the federal government.

The bill lists a dozen to-be-banned “divisive concepts,” including the notion that racism or sexism is a fundamental component of the nation’s or of Arkansas’s identity.

Advertisement

Diversity and inclusion trainings in state government, under this bill, could not tackle systemic racism because it expressly forbids state entities from allowing teaching, instruction or trainings that “An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The bill would also ban as a “divisive concept” the possibility that “Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.” Meritocracy — on its face, a sensible theory that people with brains and talent are rewarded with money and power — has been getting a closer look in recent years. The meritocracy concept fails to consider that parents with the time and means have a far better chance of setting their children up for success with tutors, enrichment activities and elite college educations. Are those well-to-do children inherently better and more deserving human beings than the ones whose parents can’t afford the tony summer camps and 529 plans? If it’s up to the authors of this bill we might never know, as this topic of conversation will be off the table within state agencies and for any contractors wanting to earn state dollars.

Advertisement

Senators filed the bill Thursday. It was referred to the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Government Affairs but is not yet scheduled for a hearing.

Opponents of the defeated mirror effort in New Hampshire said the measure is a direct attack on First Amendment rights. Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director for the New Hampshire branch of the ACLU, said the bill:

“… would prohibit the state and state contractors from undertaking a variety of trainings meant to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, and which would violate the First Amendment. Halting all diversity training could set back progress in addressing these systemic issues, including in the workplace. Talking about racism and sexism is not harmful to employees. Many employers host trainings on these issues precisely because they contribute to a workplace that is more equitable and inclusive.”

Opponents have also called out the vagueness in the law’s language. Who decides what’s racist? What’s sexist? Let’s hope it’s not Garner, Ballinger and Johnson.