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Texas This Week: Jeremy Wallace on Gov. Abbott's call to end diversity, equity and inclusion in state hiring

On Feb. 6, Gov. Greg Abbott's chief of staff sent the memo to state and university leaders – a move Jeremy Wallace with the Houston Chronicle calls a "warning shot."

AUSTIN, Texas — In this week's edition of Texas This Week, political observers say Gov. Greg Abbott fired a political warning shot at public universities this week over diversity. Jeremy Wallace, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, joins KVUE's Ashley Goudeau to discuss what was in the memo. 

Three things to know in Texas politics

1. Gov. Greg Abbott expands TikTok ban

Gov. Greg Abbott has released a statewide plan to ban TikTok in Texas. 

Back in December, the governor required all state agencies to ban the video sharing app on state-owned devices. On Feb. 6, he updated those restrictions to stop state employees from using TikTok on their personal devices if those devices are also used to conduct state business. 

The governor says the China-owned social media app poses a security risk. A Tiktok spokesperson said policies like this "will do nothing to advance cybersecurity." 

2. Texas House speaker announces committee assignments

Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) released the much anticipated list of committee assignments on Thursday. Committee assignments have been a point of contention lately, with some Republicans calling for the end to the long-standing tradition of allowing Democrats to chair committees.

Phelan appointed Democrats to chair eight of the chamber's 34 standing committees. That's down from 13 last session. And this time around, the Speaker Pro-Tem is not a Democrat  but 22-year Republican Rep. Charlie Geren from Fort Worth.

Click here to see the full list of committee assignments

3. Texas Senate adds portrait of Opal Lee to chamber

For the first time in 43 years, a new portrait has been added to the Texas Senate. On Wednesday, senators unveiled the portrait of Opal Lee, who is known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth."

At the age of 89, Lee launched a campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday. She collected 1.5 million signatures and delivered the petition to Congress. Lee, who is now 96 years old, was there when President Joe Biden signed the bill into law establishing the first new national holiday since 1983. 


Jeremy Wallace: Gov. Abbott issues "political warning shot" on diversity

Opal Lee became the second Black Texan to have her portrait displayed in the Texas Senate chamber days after Gov. Abbott's chief of staff sent a letter to state agencies and public university leaders telling them to stop using diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in their hiring. 

The juxtaposition was captured on the front page of The Houston Chronicle this week with the headlines placed side by side. Jeremy Wallace, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, joined KVUE's Ashley Goudeau to discuss the memo.

Ashley Goudeau: This week, Gov. Greg Abbott's chief of staff sent a memo to state agencies and public university leaders essentially telling them to stop using diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in hiring. I want you to tell us more about what was in that memo.  

Jeremy Wallace: "Well, this memo is a big political warning shot to every public university in the state of Texas. Diversity – these diversity programs are meant to really kind of make these universities have, you know, more diverse staff, to go along with more diverse student populations, to make sure everybody's kind of getting a chance to be heard and seen. But on the Republican side of the world, this has become kind of the new extension of critical race theory. They see this as manipulating hiring processes to favor some categories of people over others. And I think that's where they're trying to get in on this and really start making an issue with this. 

We've already seen this happen in other states. In Florida, they're making a big deal out of this. And now in Texas, we see not only the governor, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have also said that they are going after what they call DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] and it's you know, it's a form of discrimination as far as they are concerned. That letter from the chief of staff really kind of said that, you know, universities using this are risking violating federal hiring laws. And so, that's a pretty heavy wording and a pretty heavy warning to every university in the state of Texas. And most of those universities really promote what they're doing in the arena of DEI to show the student population and their staff what they're doing to be more diverse."

Goudeau: Yeah. And so, let's talk about one of the things you said there because I want to make sure we're being very clear. They say it discriminates against what group of people.  

Wallace: "Yeah, they leave that part out. They don't come out and say it. But you can hear the implication there that there are minority candidates being hired for things that maybe white people are not getting. And I think we see that – and there was a lawsuit against Texas A&M University in which there was a white professor from University of Texas who had sued over their program. And I think that kind of fits into this like, this category of debate that we're having. Where there are white professors or white – people who are white, who think they're being passed over because of these programs. 

The people who run DEI programs say, 'No, that's not what this is about.' You know, the employment hiring process is still one that's based on merit. It's just we're trying to expand the pool of applicants so we're having more applicants from more diverse backgrounds to consider for the opening. Not that they're going to get an advantage, just that they're going to be considered."

Goudeau: I want to talk about the fact that they said in this memo that this could be illegal. So, we know that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on race, sex, religion in hiring, and that was necessary legislation because of the discrimination happening – largely to Black Americans in hiring not getting jobs because of their race. So, really help us understand, you know, the context of the memo compared to the law.  

Wallace:  "Yeah, absolutely. You know, again, they're really kind of narrowing the focus on, again, if if you see DEI as a problem, the problem you're seeing is that you think that it's leading to hiring people based on something other than their merit. That's what their argument is. So you're picking people who are from underrepresented populations – that could be people who are Black or Hispanic or from other populations, you know, people who have disabilities – you're widening that pool. They think that, you know, the opponents of DEI think that means that those people are getting advantage that others are not. And so, legally, you know, they're on one end. 

But the on the other side, I've spoken with a lot of attorneys on employment law, and they say that's not what this is. It's like, yeah, if you misuse it or improperly apply it, that could happen. But really, if this is only for making sure your applicant pool is is more diverse and that the people you do hire have equal access to promotions and to other benefits that maybe other people have in your your, you know, either your firm or at the university or at a state agency. And so, I think that's where the fight is going to ultimately come down to, like, how do you see this issue as you know, is it discrimination or is it simply something that's put in place to help accentuate what we've done with trying to make sure hiring is not discriminatory in this country?"

Goudeau: Yeah. You alluded to this a bit ago, but many universities in Texas and really across the country have made DEI central to their institutions. They have offices. They have DEI officers in all of the colleges. So, how do you see this memo changing or how could it change those practices within the schools?  

Wallace: "Yeah, this is a big deal. It's like being in Austin, Texas, so you can't help but think about where we were in 2017 when you had all those protests on campus at the University of Texas that led to the removal of the statues to Confederate heroes. All of this kind of comes out of that. You know, that's when the University of Texas really put a lot of emphasis on trying to use DEI and try to, as a program, to kind of show the population that they were changing, they were trying to address the issues at hand. And the president of the university came out and talked about DEI as part of what they wanted to do. So it is all over the campus right now. 

You have universities spending millions of dollars to kind of put these programs into place, knowing that in order to attract students now and a diverse pool of students, you got to be showing how you're legitimately fixing things and not just doing things around the edges."

Goudeau: All happening under the backdrop of affirmative action in, you know, in admissions to universities being decided by the Supreme Court, potentially.  

Wallace: "Yeah, absolutely. I don't think that's a, you know, that I think is by design. I think this issue is coming up at exactly the time we're waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to make a ruling on this very similar area. Right? You know, so I have no doubt that the timing of this is intended to kind of piggyback off of that because if you listen to some of the conservative media outlets, this is the issue. You know, Republicans are kind of on notice to talk about this issue and say, 'What are you going to do about this?' And so, those folks are kind of really pushing the politicians in Texas to do more and say more about this topic and what have we seen this week. Exactly that."

Bill of the Week

In this week's edition of Bill of the Week, Ashley talks about House Concurrent Resolution 40

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