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The Utah Compact on anti-racism is a path toward change

Though ambiguous, the compact’s true strength lies in its simplicity and commitment to principle

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at the unveiling of the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Skeptics of Utah’s recent Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, announced Tuesday, will point to its ambiguity — that its principle-based approach outlines few specific changes in policy or practice to root out racism.

But the document’s strength is in that same simplicity, and like previous compacts, its true effect is not found in its creation, but in its future implementation for years to come.

The Utah Compact on Immigration, first announced in 2010 and later re-signed in 2019, is a prime example. A “declaration of five principles to guide Utah’s immigration discussion,” the compact does nothing more, nothing less — it lays out what the state’s standards should be in promoting goodwill between all members of communities, strengthening families and respecting the rule of law.

As is the most recent one, the Utah Compact on Immigration’s timing was appropriate. In 2010, Arizona introduced SB 1070, the “show me your papers” law, a harsh bill that would put immigration enforcement in the hands of local law enforcement. Many expected Utah to follow suit. Instead, the state stood on principle.

Ali Noorani, director of the National Immigration Forum, was so impressed by Utah’s “cultural approach” to immigration that he dedicated a full chapter to the Utah Compact in his book, “There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration.” He wrote: “It was not intended to provide a legislative solution. It was designed to stop harmful legislation with a set of principles based on values fundamental to the broader community. Put another way, culture and values defeated politics and policy.”

Or, to further interpret Noorani’s statement, the Utah Compact didn’t have the goal of immediately fixing immigration in Utah, but providing a set of principles that would guide future decisions, both interpersonally and legislatively.

Subsequent events are testaments of its success. In 2011, the state passed an immigration reform bill, praised as “a model for America.” In 2015, shortly after terrorist attacks in Paris, Gov. Gary Herbert was the only Republican governor to express willingness to accept more refugees in Utah. In 2019, after the Trump administration dropped the ceiling for refugee admittances to an all-time low, Herbert again requested more refugees be sent to Utah.

While immigration has remained a highly debated issue, and compromises in practice are rarely as clean-cut as they are in principle, the Utah Compact on Immigration set the state on the right trajectory. In similar fashion, the true legacy of the Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion will not be in its announcement nor its existence, but in its implementation.

“History teaches us that progress doesn’t just happen,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “It requires forethought, commitment and deliberate action. These principles reflect a firm resolve toward racial justice, a direction toward equity and inclusion that will continue during my administration. This isn’t about political correctness, it’s about human correctness.”

Immigration, at its base, is a federal issue, not a state one. Racism, at its base, is both an interpersonal and a systemic issue. The willingness of state and local leaders to sign on to anti-racism and equal opportunity is admirable. More so, it deserves full support.

The true effect of the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion may not be seen for some time. The goal, though, is to see changes, both in our interpersonal interactions and through institutions.

The compact reflects a continued movement by Utah religious leaders to fight racism in all forms. In October, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invited church members worldwide “to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.”

In Utah, Rev. Oscar T. Moses of the Calvary Baptist Church said in June, “We are at a critical juncture as it relates to race relationships(.)” And Bishop Oscar A. Solis of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City wrote, “Our response must be rooted in our Gospel beliefs, which eschew violent action but encourage us to advocate for systemic change.”

With the compact, Utah leaders took a strong step in the right direction. As NAACP board member and Deseret News columnist Theresa Dear wrote earlier this year, “May the God of our weary years and silent tears bless our weakness with strength, our fear with faith and our ambivalence with intention and steadfastness. May God remove the scales from our eyes, the stone from our heart and racism from America.”