Commitments to racial equity ring hollow when you endorse bigots

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Weeks of protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have proven to be a wake-up call for many white Americans. We are finally starting to put the pieces together, recognizing the structural inequities in education, housing and criminal justice that have long created barriers to opportunity for people of color.

Companies such as Adidas, PayPal and Pepsi have made promises to diversify workforces to mirror the general population, invest in minority-owned start-ups and businesses, and promote more minorities into management and executive positions.

While I believe many of these businesses and organizations will follow through on their promises, I also believe some are co-opting the moment in an attempt to garner positive PR while making little to no effort to change past discriminatory behaviors or policies.  

Case in point is the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a powerful lobbying organization at our Capitol.

Several weeks ago, the Chamber tooted its horn with news that its president, Glenn Hamer, had been appointed to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s task force on improving economic equity and opportunity for people of color.

Hamer noted in his announcement that he has “a real desire to ensure that all Americans have access to an even playing field,” which would be a welcome change, if true.

But Hamer’s tenure at the Chamber certainly hasn’t been one highlighted by policies that promote racial equity.

As I noted last month, Arizona has the most inequitable education system in the nation. On average, schools that serve a majority of white students receive $7,600 more per pupil than those that serve a majority of nonwhite students.

Our discriminatory budget didn’t come about by chance. The Chamber, under Hamer’s leadership, was a driving force behind many of the budgeting gimmicks — such as test-based funding and tax credits and vouchers for private and religious schools — that created our state’s unlevel playing field.

The Chamber has also been a cheerleader for regressive taxation policies that place a heavier burden on low-income residents, the majority of whom are Black and Brown, and leave less funding for social services.

But perhaps the Chamber has realized the error of its ways and is now ready to reconsider policies that promote racial equity?

If only that were true.

Since Hamer’s appointment to the task force, the Chamber has announced its legislative and ballot initiative endorsements.

Among the list of candidates the Chamber has chosen to promote is Sylvia Allen, a state senator who spouted racist drivel about white people being replaced because of decreasing birth rates and her fear that America will “look like South American countries.” The Chamber has backed her in the past, as well.

And Jay Lawrence, a state representative with a long history of racist comments who agreed with Trump’s labeling of African and Central American nations as “shithole countries,” talked about the need for police to control Brown and Black communities, and said he doesn’t care if his extreme views on refugees are bigoted.

Those are curious endorsements, to say the least, for an organization tweeting about inequality.

Curious as well is the Chamber’s decision to oppose the Smart and Safe Act, a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana.

Arizona has some of the harshest marijuana penalties in the nation and remains the only state to charge all marijuana possession crimes, regardless of how minuscule the amount, as felonies.

In 2016, the Chamber claimed its opposition to legalization centered around a lack of protections for businesses. As a result, the updated ballot measure changed the language, adding safeguards for employers and stronger enforcement provisions for law enforcement.  

But now the Chamber claims — without evidence — that marijuana legalization will “lower workplace productivity” and result in more harm than good.

That statement runs counter to data that shows the very real harm marijuana criminalization poses to minorities, especially Black Arizonans who receive average prison sentences for drug offenses more than 50% longer than those for whites.

It also ignores the concerns of diverse organizations, such as the state’s NAACP and the U.S. Black Chambers, which endorsed the initiative and called it a “sensible solution,” according to the campaign’s consultant, Chad Campbell. 

The Chamber also had an opportunity to reverse course on its discriminatory education policies and endorse the Invest in Education initiative, which aims to add hundreds of millions of dollars in increased funding for teacher pay and student support services.

Instead, the Chamber is using scare tactics and misleading information to try and maintain a status quo that gives wealthier and whiter students a huge leg up.  

I’m not convinced that racial equity and economic inequality are anything other than buzz words for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the businesses it represents, mere phrases sprinkled into press releases and tweets but never actually considered when endorsing or promoting policies and candidates.

This is a sad but all too familiar path for the organization, and why Arizonans should be extra leery this fall when considering the merits of campaigns the Chamber promotes or opposes.