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National group recommends Arkansas lawmakers defund DEI programs

Jon Schweppe, director of Policy and Government Affairs for the American Principles Project ,discussed DEI with the Arkansas Legislature’s Joint Performance Review committee on Oct. 24, 2023.
Arkansas Legislature
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Jon Schweppe, director of Policy and Government Affairs for the American Principles Project ,discussed DEI with the Arkansas Legislature’s Joint Performance Review committee on Oct. 24, 2023.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

A representative from a Virginia-based conservative organization told Arkansas lawmakers Tuesday that defunding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs is the best way to address racial discrimination.

Jon Schweppe, director of Policy and Government Affairs for the American Principles Project — a group that calls itself the “top defender of the family” — told the Legislature’s Joint Performance Review committee that DEI is a popular ideology among powerful people that “appears to be having a negligible effect or possibly even a negative one on solving animosities between racial groups.”

Instead, he said it divides people into groups, pits them against one another, and “provides opportunity for some, while cheating others.”

“Racial discrimination begets more racial discrimination begets more, and it won’t fix the problem and it won’t solve anything,” Schweppe said. “It actually distracts us from the real problem, which is poverty and people not having opportunities.”

Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, agreed poverty is a problem, but said it’s important to look at this issue through a historical lens. During slavery, Black Americans were not considered full human beings by law, and it took a century after the Civil War before the Civil Rights Act was passed, Gazaway said. Black Americans continued to face discrimination during that time through segregation and Jim Crow policies, which were also law, he said.

“Our discrimination was very specifically focused, so why should we not also have a very specifically focused remedy to try to rectify those wrongs against a very particular community that was harmed in a very targeted way?” Gazaway asked.

Schweppe said the United States passed laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race to fix those wrongs, so it doesn’t help or is not legal to do so, even if it’s well intentioned.

Rep. Jamie Scott, D-Little Rock, said it’s harmful to act as though these issues don’t have a serious impact on people’s lives.

“As a minority woman who represents a pretty minority district, these are things that people that look like me, Black and Brown people, experience quite often and experience in this state,” Scott said. “It’s not just us making up something. It’s not a buzzword. This is our lives, this is our life experiences and it matters.”

Asked by Scott if he’d ever experienced discrimination, Schweppe said he’d faced discrimination as a Christian and a conservative.

“There are opportunities that are not available to me because of my diverse belief system that would be available to folks who subscribe to the regime as I said earlier, the regime’s preferred view system, so absolutely viewpoint discrimination, yes,” Schweppe said with a laugh.

“On the basis of the color of my skin, I can’t recall a time, but I’m sure it’s happened. Sex? I don’t know. I’m a dude, maybe, but it’s not something that I focus on because ultimately I’m looking at, through my work at American Principles Project, improving the outcomes of all Americans because all people have human dignity and deserve to be afforded it.”

Tuesday’s meeting was part of an ongoing conversation around DEI in the Legislature. The Arkansas Legislative Council in August authorized a study of DEI practices in Arkansas colleges and universities. As part of that initiative, higher education officials last week told lawmakers that DEI is used for recruitment and for supporting student success on campus, instead of impacting admissions.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the use of affirmative action in college admissions in June.

The DEI study was requested by ALC Higher Education subcommittee co-chair Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, who is considering proposing legislation on the issue in 2025. Sullivan sponsored legislation this year to end state-sponsored affirmative action, which he described as discrimination. His bill died on the House floor after bipartisan pushback.

On Tuesday, Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, called DEI “a big political football” and questioned if it would be more palatable if words like variety, fairness and opportunity were used. Schweppe said diversity, equity and inclusion are important values. It’s the “race-based discrimination and sex-based discrimination and intimidation” that cause a problem, he said.

Referencing his comment regarding the dignity of all people, McCullough questioned how a legally married same-sex couple’s dignity can be furthered if they can be fired from a job or kicked out of housing. Schweppe said he was “not aware of a same-sex couple being fired from their job anywhere in America…it doesn’t really happen.”

McCullough responded that she was fired ten years ago for that reason.

“All over America it happens,” she said.

“I don’t believe that’s true, I’m sorry,” Schweppe said. “Ultimately that’s just not really a problem in this country and it’s not happening.”

McCullough offered to share research on the subject with Schweppe’s organization. She also asked committee co-chair Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, why this out-of-state group, which Schweppe described as “the NRA for the families,” was chosen to speak to Arkansas lawmakers.

Hammer said APP was selected because they’ve worked with DEI on the national level “as far as trying to establish [its] true intent.” Hammer also said he’d be open to suggestions to hear from other groups, but didn’t intend to make this a year-long discussion.

“I appreciate very much the tone and the conversation in the room, the agreements and the disagreements of opinions and positions that individuals may have,” he said. “I think as long as we have these kinds of conversations, we can make progress forward.”

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.