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If public debate is steeped in emotion, the facts and logic of an issue soon fade into the background and the emotions muddy the facts. Emotional fogs, spread by media and social networks, have the power to smother reason and confuse people who start believing things that are not true.

When this happens, people, in and out of the Legislature, start building substitute realities and calling for policies based on fiction.

Let's take an example. A segment of the population believes white people are being discriminated against. In a recent poll published in The New York Times (Oct. 20, 2010), by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit organization funded by the Ford Foundation, Americans were asked the following question: Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

Fifty-four percent of those polled disagreed with this statement, but the breakdown of the 44 percent who agreed is revealing in terms of what it might mean for political policy-making: 62 percent were white tea party members; 56 percent were white Republicans; 53 percent were white independents; 30 percent were white Democrats.

The 44 percent who believed that whites are now as victimized by discrimination as blacks and minorities must be having an emotional response. How else could they ignore the years and years of studies, the piles of scholarly research, the mountains of statistics, and the daily reports of continuing injustices. Fogging the facts must have permitted emotion to rule. I can't imagine which emotions drive them to their conclusions. What I do know is that ignoring the facts is a bad way to make public policy

In Utah, the facts could not be more clear. Minority groups and women are struggling. More women work here than the national average yet they make less, earning 68 cents for every dollar earned by a Utah man. That's way behind the national average of 77 cents (which is not good).

Far fewer women in Utah than men are graduating from college. We have a similarly low graduation rate for minorities. We have the lowest percentage of women-owned businesses in the country; for minorities it's even lower. Graduate programs have trouble recruiting talented women and minority students.

Nationally MBA programs are 50 percent women. Not here. Companies recruiting top female and minority talent for Utah have a difficult time enticing them to come. I know from personal conversations with people around the country that professional minority men and women don't see Utah as a friendly place. All the colleges in Utah universities that depend on math and science for their core curriculum struggle to get young women and people of color into their programs.

The facts are that economic and societal blocks can be very, very difficult to overcome and programs to help people overcome these barriers have made progress. They need to continue. Affirmative action makes these programs possible. The programs abide by federal and state guidelines; they do not involve quotas or the kinds of strict preferences that could disadvantage white people, but they do encourage, they do open pathways, they do give people who never believed they could achieve a way to achieve.

Sen. Margaret Dayton is sponsoring SJR2, a bill to amend Utah's Constitution to prohibit any kind of preferential treatment in governmental institutions and especially schools in Utah. She is not looking at the facts. The reality, not the emotion, of what is happening now, today, is that Utah's Constitution is working perfectly to allow all its citizens access to opportunities that enable them to participate fully in the community.

Amending it in the way Dayton seems to intend (the language has not yet been made public) would mean an end to many, many good programs including those introducing girls into math and science. Most of us don't want those programs to end. We all want everyone to have a chance to be productive, tax-paying citizens of Utah. We all want everyone to have a fair opportunity for the pursuit of happiness.

A Salt Lake Tribune poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling Jan. 17-19 said 51 percent would oppose such an amendment and only 31 percent support. It appears the people of Utah are more connected to reality than the Legislature.

Karen Shepherd is a former member of Congress, a former member of the Utah Senate, and the former editor of network magazine.v