A number of bills in the Utah Legislature challenging diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are getting pushback from Democrats, higher education institutions, the NAACP Salt Lake Branch and businesses.

Critics say the bills are vague and could encourage self-censorship and deepen existing inequities. Those who support the bills argue critics are misinterpreting the bills, with one lawmaker claiming "anti-racism is racism."

At least four bills this session target diversity, equity and inclusion:

  • SB283, which originally banned diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in higher education before the sponsor opted to push for a study instead.
  • HB427, which would limit how K-12 educators can discuss racism, sexism, ageism and religious discrimination in classrooms.
  • HB441, which would prohibit schools and state entities from asking applicants anything about what they've done to further inclusion.
  • HB451, which would require schools to create a neutrality policy, crack down on how teachers and other school staff discuss controversial issues, and require schools to create a neutrality policy.

"Many of us from diverse backgrounds are exhausted right now of all these bills attacking diversity, equity and inclusion," House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said during a committee meeting on SB283. "And we're just done."

Utah's only Black state lawmaker, Rep. Sandra Hollins, said her phone has been blowing up with messages from concerned students, teachers and professors who don't feel safe in Utah school systems as well as organizations that are trying to recruit diverse businesses and talent into the state.

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"I honestly don't know what to tell them," Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said from the floor. "I'm more than tired physically. I'm tired spiritually and mentally from fighting. It seems like we keep taking two steps forward and going five steps back."

"I don't know what the fear is. There's not enough of us in this state that we could be running these bills because there's fear that somehow some people are going to be left out of something," she continued. "I don't know what to tell my community anymore. I don't know how to make them feel safe anymore."

NAACP Salt Lake Branch President Jeanetta Williams urged lawmakers to vote no on HB451.

"If enacted into law, it would weaken the enforcement of the Utah anti-discrimination act and weaken enforcement of federal law establishing equal protection in employment and education. HB451 could result in more discrimination against women, minorities and disabled persons," Williams said during a hearing of HB451. "In removing protection from anti-racist policies, this bill could encourage unreasonable persons to act in a racist manner in Utah agencies and educational institutions."

Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, who sponsored SB283, said the bills are not racist.

"I liked this bill, OK, and it's not because I'm a racist or looking at people differently. And you can have your own thoughts on that. But we need to get back to the ideals of Martin Luther King where we're judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin," Johnson said during the same hearing on HB451. "I believe very strongly that that's the case, that anti-racism is racism."

Rep. Tim Jimenez, R-Tooele, who sponsored HB427, said people are misinterpreting his bill.

"We want to make sure that any materials we're bringing into the schools espouse these ideas of individual freedom and to make sure that we're not bringing in anything racist or sexist," he said during a House Education Committee meeting. "As someone who loves history, I think it's absolutely essential that we talk about the past. The only way we can fix the future and make sure we don't return to our most basic instincts is to understand exactly where we come from. I still have no idea how people are reading this and thinking that it does not allow these open discussions."

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House and Senate Democrats also released a statement urging lawmakers to reconsider bills that try to remove efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion and instead strive for a more inclusive and welcoming environment.

"It is important that our communities of color feel safe, supported and valued. Everyone deserves an opportunity to thrive regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity or background. Diversity, equity and inclusion are essential components of a healthy society, and we must work together to ensure that they are at the forefront of our efforts," the statement reads. "We stand in solidarity with people of color in Utah and across the nation, and we will continue to work toward a future where everyone can thrive. Let us join forces to promote diversity, inclusivity and equity, and create a brighter future for all."

A number of higher education institutions have spoken against such bills and successfully urged lawmakers to study diversity, equity and inclusion offices in higher education rather than ban it.

"We definitely are not afraid to study things. That's what we do in education and we're absolutely happy to look at this and see where we're at," Dave Woolstenhulme, Utah System of Higher Education commissioner, said during a hearing on SB283. "While we're happy to study it, we also very much appreciate these individuals at our campuses that do so much good work with our students."

Utah Tech Leads, a group advocating for the state's tech industry, said a recent hearing about one of the bills "brings a fullness to efforts sweeping across the nation to reverse course on achievements of diversity, equity and inclusion." The organization said SB283 — which would have prohibited diversity, equity and inclusion offices and officers in higher education before the sponsor pulled it — is anti-business and urged lawmakers to oppose it and similar legislation.

"Building companies and hiring our workforce with a diversity, equity and inclusion lens means we build better products and services that benefit everyone's bottom line. We are perplexed at the numerous anti-diversity bills presented this session," Utah Tech Leads CEO Sunny Washington said in a press release. "In a continuously tight labor market, tech companies want to be able to attract and hire from the best candidate pool. In order for us to do this, we partner heavily with our higher education institutions to provide our future workforce."

The impact of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in Utah

Those whose work has emphasized equity, diversity and inclusion say such efforts have had a positive impact in Utah.

Former lawmaker Ross Romero — whose consulting firm Inclusion Strategies specializes in diversity, equity and inclusion strategies — pointed to marriage equality, the establishment of the Women's Leadership Institute and significant community support for the Utah Black Chamber as examples.

"Do we still have a long way to go? Absolutely. And are we behind other states? Yes. But if we're comparing ourselves to ourselves, we're definitely making progress," Romero said, adding that the recent surge of specific job positions dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives is evidence of Utah's progress.

He added that although the murder of George Floyd and racial health disparities during the COVID-19 pandemic helped bring conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion to the forefront, such efforts have been taking place in Utah for years.

"I feel like I've been advocating in this space for all of my professional life," Ross Romero said. "Even though many of us were in that space, and trying to bridge between minority and majority communities, I didn't have the title of a diversity officer, but it was certainly part of the work I was doing as a community participant."

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Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin has had a similar experience during her career in higher education.

"We've had efforts related to (diversity, equity and inclusion) in our budget for as long as I can remember, and I've been part of the college for almost 31 years," she said. "That's the (return on investment) for me, is to see that students have found their voice, have been academically successful, have walked across the commencement stage and are now out in our community doing great things."

Both Huftlin and Ross Romero said diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are still needed in Utah. Huftlin added that diversity, equity and inclusion efforts have benefitted all SLCC students and the larger community by increasing access to education for marginalized communities, which in turn disrupts generational poverty through education.

"It's not designed to exclude; it's designed to include and create stronger understanding for everyone in the community," she said. "Our white students who are sitting alongside our students of color and who maybe are learning history that they didn't know, about some of the potential experiences our students of color have experienced, in the real world or even on campus, that have been less than welcoming — that's a powerful learning experience for everyone in that room to hear, whether you're Black or brown or white."

Romero said diversity, equity and inclusion efforts elicit pushback because change is difficult.

"I look at this as an opportunity and I try to counsel clients to look at diversity of talent as an untapped resource and the buying power of diverse communities as an opportunity," he said. "Unfortunately, sometimes some of these notions get caught up politically and they shouldn't because there's a difference between market opportunity and cultural change, and I think they shouldn't be at odds with each other. It's just a recognition of what's coming and how do we take advantage of it?"