Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Columbia study suggests way forward on equality at state level

Andrew Gelman at FiveThirtyEight discusses a major study of equality issues at the state level by Columbia University Professors Jeffrey R. Lax and Justin H. Phillips. The news that Gelman focuses on, namely, marriage, is not good for Tennessee. We've made some gains in public opinion since the 90s, but we've got a long way to go.

Really significant for Tennessee is Lax and Phillips' look at other issues such as employment non-discrimination and the role of media attention and public opinion as they translate into policy change. According to their state-by-state statistics, 53% of the people of Tennessee would support job protections for the GLBT community. (p. 40)

In itself, the number is good news, but even more important are their findings that suggest a way forward at the state level. At the middle range of public opinion support for a policy option, you can increase the probability of its adoption by 6% with just a 1% movement in public opinion. (p. 21) Salience, meaning their measure of media coverage and public awareness of a particular policy option, is also an important part of the puzzle: "To get a 50% chance of policy adoption, you need roughly 57% support if salience is high, roughly 62% if salience is average, and a whopping 73% if salience is low." (p. 24)

These findings suggest a counter-intuitive conclusion for strategy. Keeping it quiet is not going to work:

While it has been argued that keeping the scope of conflict small and lobbying discretely is the most likely path to success (e.g., Haider-Markel and Maier 1996), this may not be true for gays and lesbians. There are also “cheap” gains to be had in that shifts in employment and housing protection would actually have majoritarian support in almost all states. Employment and housing protection have received far less attention, perhaps because there is such widespread agreement. (pp. 31-32)

Lax and Phillips help explain aspects of the non-discrimination battle we recently went through in Shelby County. While there wasn't any polling on the ordinance, public comment in terms of volume of contact with lawmakers and numbers of supporters at the June 1 County Commission meeting showed strong public support for the ordinance. Media coverage was also extensive yielding a high salience factor. Still, we fell short of the full ordinance and got a resolution. Perhaps we needed more of a lead-up to the effort. But all the attention received by the Shelby ordinance battle lays the groundwork nicely for the Memphis City Council effort.

I think this analysis also helps us explain why the hate crimes bill didn't advance further in the Legislature. There was NO media coverage of the bill. Lax and Phillips estimate public support for hate crimes laws in Tennessee at 65%. Given the lack of media coverage, it's amazing the bill got out of subcommittee with bipartisan support. We all should have done more to draw media attention to the bill in March and April.

Another conclusion that Lax and Phillips reach is that "the federal government has been worse at translating majority opinion into policy than the state governments." (pp. 27-28) It makes sense. Federal equality legislation keeps getting close to passage, but not close enough so far. And that's not surpising given the analysis about salience. With all the media focus on marriage, there has been very little memorable coverage in the national and Tennessee media of either the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or the Matthew Shepard Act. National GLBT organizations are doing a great job of lobbying, but they need to be pushing more media stories on hate crimes and job discrimination.

Or we could just draw the conclusion that we shouldn't hold our breath on federal legislation, but rather we should continue working hard at the state and local level in Tennesee to protect our community.

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