Lacking minorities, state boards are ill-prepared to serve all Texans

Gov. Greg Abbott should look at fairness, justice and best practices — along with qualifications — in making appointments to state boards and commissions. Given his record, that clearly is not happening.

If those measures were used, Abbott’s appointments would better reflect the ethnic, racial and gender diversity of Texas. They don’t, as an analysis by the San Antonio Express-News shows.

Of the 889 people Abbott has appointed to boards or elevated to chairmanships since January 2015, when he became governor, nearly 72 percent are Anglo and more than 63 percent are men — more than 45 percent are both Anglo and male. The analysis went on to break down those appointments by race, ethnicity and donors who have contributed to Abbott’s political campaigns over the years.

Figures show that 16.4 percent of his appointees are Hispanic, 6.6 percent African-American and 3.3 percent Asian-American. Consider that Hispanics make up 39.1 percent of the Texas population — more than twice the percentage of Abbott’s picks for state policy-making boards.

Similarly, African-Americans account for 12.6 percent of the population, and Asians make up 4.8 percent. Women make up just over half of the Texas population.

Those deficiencies were tough enough to justify under previous governors, including Republican Rick Perry, Abbott’s predecessor. But in a technologically-savvy Texas that is more diverse than ever, it’s unacceptable — and embarrassing. It’s telling that none of the nine regents on the coveted University of Texas System board is African-American.

Abbott’s appointments are out of step with the state’s diverse population. Whites who are not Hispanic make up 42.6 percent of the population, and Latinos, African-Americans and Asians account for 56.5 percent.

Express-News writers Peggy Fikac and Annie Millerbernd reported the findings earlier this month. It’s worth noting that their report showed about 29 percent of Abbott’s appointees are donors, with their contributions ranging from $25 to more than $1 million from 2001 through October 2017.

Abbott’s staff told the Express-News that he looks for the best-qualified individuals, never takes contributions into account in making appointments and pushes for diversity.

Best-qualified? That term resembles a similarly insensitive phrase state leaders used in the past to exclude or limit minorities from high-level service: They could not find enough qualified African-Americans or Latinos to fill the numerous seats on boards and commissions.

It was lame then, and it’s still lame, particularly with all the high-tech tools available in identifying highly qualified appointees across racial, gender and ethnic lines.

We don’t question the credentials or qualifications of Abbott’s appointees. The Express-News concluded that they “typically appear qualified for their posts.”

But qualifications alone don’t yield the kind of pool a modern Texas needs to properly or adequately serve all its people. The state needs people from different walks of life who bring their experiences to policy-making.

They might be obscure to the average person, but state boards and commissions touch Texans in every walk of life, from birth to death. They oversee, regulate or make policy for the state’s public colleges and universities, prisons, social service agencies, courts, parks, funeral industry, arts, juvenile justice and transportation systems, among other things. During a four-year term, a governor will make about 3,000 appointments.

Edmund “Ted” Gordon, UT-Austin vice provost for diversity, questions whether policies and practices crafted by boards and commissions that have few or no minorities can be fair to people of color if their voices are excluded or diminished.

“Texas has a large population of African-Americans,” Gordon said. “We pay our fair share of taxes. We are citizens. But we have historically been shut out of exercising our decisions and citizenship” on boards and commissions “when governors are not sympathetic to the simple issue of justice and fairness.”

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, advised Abbott to look beyond political labels or bank accounts in appointing people to boards and commissions.

“Our policies don’t reflect the true needs or our diverse state,” Hinojosa told us. “If (Abbott) is pulling from people who contribute in Republican primaries or appointing only Republicans, then that will limit racial diversity.”

Hinojosa pointed to her own job in the Texas House to emphasize the importance of gender diversity. The House has just 29 women among its 150 members.

“The men are setting the agenda,” she said. “It’s why we talk so much about guns and sex.”

Aside from moral reasons, there are practical considerations for diversifying appointments to state boards and commissions, as many successful businesses strive to do.

In its 2015 study, management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. indicated that workplaces with more gender and ethnic diversity were more likely to outperform national industry medians.

Abbott is fond of touting Texas’ booming economy. It stands to reason that greater diversity on oversight boards might improve the state’s business climate.

Mexican American Legislative Caucus Chairman Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said the caucus will be monitoring Abbott’s appointments over the next year. That is good. However, it would send a positive signal if Abbott immediately takes steps to broaden criteria so that boards and commissions look more like Texas and serve all Texans.

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