The Arkansas Legislature is in the national spotlight right now for all the worst reasons, after the state’s governing body once again shot down comprehensive hate crimes legislation and overrode Governor Hutchinson’s veto of a bill banning healthcare for transgender youth.
Arkansas is one of just three states without hate crimes legislation and the first state in the country to bar trans kids from accessing gender-confirming care. The rest of the country has reacted to these recent policy choices with shock and outrage. As an African American, child of immigrants, women, and millennial born and raised in the South, I confess to neither shock nor outrage.
As a person who grew up in Arkansas with an identity that was often marginalized, I know too well that this was not our legislature’s first foray into institutionalizing hate. The fear of what is different and what might be changing and the hate it produces has deep roots in Arkansas and throughout the South.
This region has a deep-rooted history of constantly attacking and questioning both diversity and change. These most recent backward-facing policies are natural byproducts of my state’s abject fear of change and a relentless refusal to confront its oppressive past. Those two forces very much shape our present. Arkansas has a long history of violence against its own Black citizens from slavery to the present. State politicians have fought tooth and nail to prevent our children from learning. Its recent attacks on the LGBT community are also part of a broader pattern of discrimination going back decades. The policies we see now are the results of a state culture that has chosen to protect some at the expense of everyone else.
The current battle over the state’s hate crime legislation is the perfect example of hate-filled policy choice at work. State Senator Joyce Elliott first introduced comprehensive hate crime legislation a full 20 years ago and has amended and re-introduced her bill countless times in the decades since to no avail.
Last year, when Arkansas started getting bad press for failing to adopt any kind of hate crime legislation as 47 other states had done, Governor Hutchinson called a press conference, announced he’d prioritize passing a bill this year. Scores of corporations, chambers of commerce, current elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans voiced support and were eager to share the stage with our Governor as he announced that passing Hate Crimes legislation would be a top priority in the 2021 session.
This year Senate Bill 3 was eagerly re-introduced, a comprehensive hate crimes bill that would explicitly criminalize attacks against individuals due to their race, sexual orientation, or gender identity (among others). Before SB3 was even assigned to a committee to be heard, far right members of our Governor’s own party openly mocked the legislation and declared it dead on arrival. They were right.
In an attempt to save face, SB622, a laughably scaled-back hate crimes bill, was introduced instead. SB622 removed any mention of all of those categories, instead choosing to legislate against crimes based on “mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.”
At best, this scaled-back version represents a toothless version of hate crime legislation that doesn’t remotely meet the standards set by other states or federal legislation. At worst, it’s a shameless attempt to co-opt the very real threats that our marginalized communities face and use the legislation meant to protect them to position themselves as the “real” victims. In a state that’s unleashed a bevy of anti-transgender bills in the last month alone, it’s not a stretch to see how making “biological characteristics” a protected class could be abused against trans communities or doctors that try to help them. In charged political times, it’s also not hard to see how weaponizing “political identity” could be used to stifle opposition to conservatism.
Of course, the legislature’s politicians know what they’re doing here. The feeble attempt at a hate crimes bill — while refusing even to bring the more substantive bill to a committee vote — is just a way of saving face. The flurry of racist, classist, sexist, and anti-transgender bills are just a way of showing that they’ll happily choose to protect bigotry over actual human lives.
The message in these bills comes through loud and clear: Arkansas does not want certain communities here. These legislators pretend to want growth when it means economic, but not if it means too much diversity or too much change to a status quo culture. I’ve heard that message many times in my life, and each and every time, it reminds me why so many people choose to leave.
However, there are many who are taking on the fight and telling those who wish to silence them that enough is enough and that you cannot ignore the voices and rights of Arkansans. A voice that gets louder, more consistent, and more organized every day.
Will it take another 20 years for Arkansas to produce a plan to protect the least among us? I don’t think so. But as I watch those who aim to dismantle and misrepresent the cultural beauty of my home and repeatedly shout from the highest halls of power that marginalized communities like mine are not welcome, I know that we need each other now more than ever.
Arkansas is for you, it is for me and it is our Arkansas. We can fight for and build a state that is far more willing to lean into its future than to hold on to its past.