Take care not to be seen as uppity when chastising your fellow legislators.
Rep. Valdenia Winn of Wyandotte County may be effectively censored for that transgression. All because she unleashed a lesson in institutionalized racism while testifying against a bill in March.
The bill was tabled. It sought to repeal a 10-year-old law allowing some immigrants to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities. Republicans on the education panel were ticked off by Winn’s testimony. Nine signed a complaint for what they term her “offensive, reprehensible” language.
“I’m a highly educated, strong, outspoken African-American female,” said Winn, a Democrat. “This is an attempt to silence me.”
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Winn got off on the wrong foot at the beginning of the March 19 committee hearing. She used the r-word: racism.
“This is a racist, sexist, fearmongering bill,” Winn began her testimony. “I want to apologize to the students and their parents whose lives are being hijacked by the racist bigots who support this bill because this bill is not an act of …”
At that point, Winn was halted by Rep. John Barker’s objection: “She just referred to this committee as racist.”
No, she did not. Other members hadn’t voted their support of the bill yet.
But in a heated debate, subtleties are lost. Especially when people don’t have a baseline understanding of how bias can weave its way into policy and law. And that apparently includes the two African-American GOP members who also signed the complaint.
Winn has been a history professor at Kansas City Kansas Community College for 42 years. She earned her doctorate at the University of Kansas.
“I am trying to talk in historical terms and they are taking it personally,” Winn said.
The episode came during a hearing about a Kansas bill affecting students who are usually called Dreamers. About 650 such students are currently enrolled in Kansas, the vast majority at community colleges. Most were brought to the country illegally as children by their parents. To pay the in-state rate, they need to have graduated from a Kansas high school and be seeking legal status, among other qualifications. Many actually have a temporary legal status through a federal executive order.
The complaint to censure Winn, a rare procedure, will be heard at 2 p.m. Wednesday by a panel of six representatives chosen by House Speaker Ray Merrick. The panel can dismiss the complaint, reprimand, censure or kick Winn out of the Legislature.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to anything more than continued reflection by everyone.
The complaint was signed by Reps. Ron Highland of Wamego, Jerry Lunn of Overland Park, Tony Barton of Leavenworth, John Bradford of Lansing, Willie Dove of Bonner Springs, Dennis Hedke of Wichita, Charles Macheers of Shawnee, Marc Rhoades of Newton and Barker of Abilene.
Institutionalized racism is not easily explained. And raising the word racism alone is enough to cause brains to shrink and shut down.
Winn continued her comments, trying to show that repealing the Kansas law would unfairly affect a small group of immigrants, taking away their ability to pay for a college education. Many such students are female, hence her mention of sexism.
She noted fearmongering because people often mistakenly claim that migrants will cross the border to gain the in-state rate and that enrolling them will draw more migrants. No. They come for work. No one drags their kid across a desert, dodging drug cartels, with the grand goal of that child someday becoming a Jayhawk or a Shocker.
The Kansas Board of Regents has repeatedly testified against efforts to repeal the law allowing these students to pay in-state tuition. Because most of the students are from poorer families, the state would simply lose their tuition money if the law was repealed. The students would lose their future.
In a perfect legislature, people who make laws governing everyone would have a firm grasp of the damage that institutionalized racism has caused and still holds within society. They would understand that kind people, people without flagrant prejudices, exist within biased systems. But they are swept up by the current as policies play out to harm or favor one group over another.
Cooler heads would have taken the route of trying to sit down with the professor and grasp her points. But that’s not what we’re dealing with in Topeka.