Senator to propose elimination of affirmative action program

By: - February 28, 2022 2:46 pm
Sen. Mike Bell (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sen. Mike Bell (Photo: John Partipilo)

In his final year as a state senator, Mike Bell is ready to get rid of Tennessee’s affirmative action program, saying he will bring legislation this week to eliminate it from state and local governments.

Senate Bill 2440 by Bell and House Bill 2569, sponsored by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, prohibits the state from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment an individual or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employmentm, education or contracting.

The bill would apply to state government, the higher education system, local education agencies and public charter schools.

It’s just literally bringing the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, original meaning of it, and when you look back on the history of the U.S. Supreme Court cases, I think that’s the way we’re moving.

– Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville

The measure could be considered this week in the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

Bell, a Riceville Republican, didn’t cite any problems with the state’s affirmative action program but said he wants to follow a national trend.

“There’s eight states that have done it. It’s just literally bringing the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, original meaning of it, and when you look back on the history of the U.S. Supreme Court cases, I think that’s the way we’re moving,” said Bell, who is not seeking re-election this fall.

Bell points out California removed affirmative action with a ballot measure in 1996 and last year voters there decided against reversing it.

Under state law, overseen by the Department of Human Resources, each state agency is required to complete an affirmative action plan each year identifying and analyzing patterns in the “participation and utilization” of women and minorities in the state’s workforce.

For instance, the state has a Civil Rights Division within the Department of Transportation that works on equal opportunities and ensures employment is handled fairly.

That includes providing diversity training and recruiting minority and female employees and applicants, as well as ensuring Equal Employment Opportunity compliance and on-the-job training with contractors and consultants.

In addition, the Secretary of State’s website notes that “… each Appointing Authority in state service shall: (1) Be held responsible for compliance with the state law, policy and executive orders pertaining to Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO), Americans with Disabilities Amendments ACt (ADAA), Affirmative Action (AA), and Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).”

The legislation also could affect state efforts to contract with women- and minority-owned businesses. But the legislation points out it does not prohibit “bona fide” occupational qualifications based on sex that are reasonably necessary for “normal and efficient operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.

The Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment says that “No state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” That is the basis for affirmative action policies, an effort to give women and minorities an opportunity to take jobs from which they were previously excluded.

Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, called Bell's bill "unfortunate."(Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, called Bell’s bill “unfortunate.”(Photo: John Partipilo)

A move is afoot, though, nationwide to end affirmative action programs because of the belief that women and minorities have made enough progress that they should no longer receive priority for job openings.

State Sen. Brenda Gilmore was disappointed Monday to hear about the plan.

“I think there are still so many areas that are underrepresented,” said Gilmore, an African-American lawmaker who represents north Nashville. She helped integrate Gallatin High School in 1970.

Gilmore said that while there are a large number of women and minorities working in state government, a study would likely show they are in entry-level positions, not management posts.

She called Bell’s proposal “unfortunate” and said she hopes he decides against bringing the bill forward.

“We’re just not there yet,” she said of equality in the workforce. 

The measure would not prohibit action required to maintain eligibility for federal programs or funding that would lead to the loss of funds.

A person who feels their rights were violated under this new section could take legal action against the state and recover compensatory damages.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.