Racial equity study bill passes first hearing at Colorado legislature

· Feb. 1, 2024, 10:01 pm
Colorado Senate President Pro Tempore James Coleman sits behind the dias on the last day of the legislative session. May 8, 2023.Colorado Senate President Pro Tempore James Coleman sits behind the dias on the last day of the legislative session. May 8, 2023.Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Colorado Senate President Pro Tempore James Coleman sits behind the dias on the last day of the legislative session. May 8, 2023.

A bill that backers say would help all of Colorado understand and confront the systemic inequities its Black citizens face cleared its first committee at the Capitol on Thursday. 

Under the proposal, a commission would be appointed to conduct an exhaustive racial equity study, an undertaking the sponsors expect would take two years. The final product would lay out the ways slavery touched Colorado, as well as chart the present day impacts of racism in everything from health care and education to housing and policing. 

“While we've made steps to improve the lives of all people in Colorado, I know that we have much work to do,” said Democratic Senate President Pro Tem James Coleman, the sponsor of Senate Bill 53. “I know we can do better. In order to do better for the people, we need to have data-driven solutions.”

The bill’s preamble states that the history of slavery and discrimination has harmed Black Coloradans in material ways, even though Colorado is perceived as not participating in slavery, and that the legacy of discrimination has persisted throughout its history, including the powerful role the Klu Klux Klan played in state and local governments in the 1920s. 

“Colorado demonstrates a track record of racial discrimination, resulting directly in racial disparities,” reads the legislative declaration. “Racial equity studies are tools used to qualify and quantify past discrimination and recommend certain corrective measures as may be warranted by the study's findings.”

Once complete, the commission, made up of lawmakers, historians and other experts, will present the study to the legislature and various state entities. Private funds would pay for the effort. 

“I do think that there is a lack of awareness across the board,” said MiDian Holmes, an equity and anti-racism consultant who spoke at a community gathering of supporters at the Capitol just prior to the hearing. But Holmes said she wants more assurances about what will happen after the study is complete.

“Because the last thing that we want to see is that we have all the data points, we have all the information that calls out the disparities, but then we don't do anything to enact things that will mitigate and to correct and to repair for those disparities,” she said.

In an editorial last fall, Holmes pointed to Evanston, Illinois, and Saint Petersburg, Florida, as places that have taken concrete steps toward equity after conducting their own racial justice studies. 

Colorado’s report will identify potential policies that could “address the effects of discrimination that may be attributed to practices, systems, and policies of the state” but does not require the legislature to implement them. It will also recommend ways its research findings can be worked into the state’s K-12 curriculum.

The Democratic measure passed its first committee on a party line vote with the panel’s two Republicans opposed. Republican Sen. Larry Liston from Colorado Springs said his big concern is that the report could set the groundwork for a push for reparations.

“Personally speaking, I'm against reparations for anybody — anybody, for any reason,” said Liston. “Unfortunately, there were injustices that were done 150 years ago… we've tried to address them. Is everything perfect today? I don't know.”

Liston said he has the utmost respect and admiration for the main sponsor, Sen. Coleman, but that he can’t support the state putting its weight behind such a study, which he believes will further divide people. 

“In this charged environment that we have, do we really need to be doing this?” asked Liston. “I don't see other groups coming to the legislature and saying, ‘Hey, you need to do a special study for us because we were hurt or held back.’”

The study bill is a top priority for the legislature’s Black Caucus and with Democrats holding wide majorities in the statehouse  it is expected to pass. 

During the hearing, Democratic Sen. Tony Exum of Colorado Springs, a member of the Black Caucus, said forward thinking is required to uncover disparities and allow the state to move toward true equality. 

“The trauma of racism is real, but many times not acknowledged,” said Exum. He pointed to something he sees in his own life: “The assumptions made in Black communities that we will not succeed, but just merely survive.” 

Several states have conducted similar studies, including California, where the effort included the study of potential reparations. The commission there issued its final report to the California legislature last June.

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