OEA president says U.S. is not a world leader on race issues

June 29, 2021

Ray Carter

The head of Oklahoma’s largest teachers’ union said the United States is not a “shining star of equality” during a recent online panel in which participants declared the country is racist, attacked a Cherokee lawmaker who disagreed with their views, and said voting Republican in the presidential election was a sign of racism.

“Have we had civil-rights action in America? Yes,” said Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) president Alicia Priest. “Are we the shining star of equality? I do not believe that we are there yet.”

Priest made those comments as part of a panel hosted by the Oklahoma Conference of Churches titled, “Is America a ‘Fundamentally Racist Nation’? A Faith Perspective.”

Much of the panel’s focus was on enactment of House Bill 1775, which banned K-12 schools from teaching several concepts, including that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” or that individuals “should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.”

Shannon Fleck, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, said HB 1775 and bills like it are designed to “squash the racial progress that has been made in our country.”

Panelists were asked to respond to a comment made by Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, who during debate on HB 1775 stated, “Other countries look at us ‘cause we lead the way in civil rights.”

Priest was not the only panelist to disagree with Humphrey.

“I don’t know if other countries are looking at us glassy eyed, thinking we have all the answers when it comes to civil rights,” Fleck said. “We have progressed since we as white Europeans captured and murdered Native Americans and Africans to subjugate them for free labor for hundreds of years. So white people have free labor that built this country. That essentially gets ignored. And so that, in and of itself, is a racially systemic birth of a country that did not get eradicated at the end of slavery.”

Fleck added that African-Americans in the United States “were not given equal rights at the end of the civil rights era” in the 1960s.

Others voiced similar views.

“It’s demonstrably provable that there are other societies with better civil-rights records than the United States, and you can look it up in the Freedom in the World freedom atlas,” said Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa.

The most recent Freedom in the World report, published by Freedom House, gave countries like Palau, San Marino, Slovakia and Mongolia higher scores for freedom than the United States, although Freedom House acknowledged that those nations are plagued by corruption, exploitation of immigrants and minorities, or both.

The report claims the United States suffers from “bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, harmful policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.”

Waldron, a former educator, objected to HB 1775 placing limits on what teachers can say in class.

“Why do we have legislation that censors teachers?” Waldron asked. “I mean, it just goes right back to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which banned the teaching of evolution in defiance of the First Amendment.”

The 1925 trial referenced by Waldron centered on a teacher placed on trial for teaching material from the textbook, “A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems.” That textbook notably used evolution to justify racism. The book stated that there exist “five races or varieties of man” with the “Ethiopian or negro type” ranked lowest while the “highest type of all, the Caucasians,” were “represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” The textbook advocated for “preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.”

“Now, when it comes to, like, homosexuality, I teach them, ‘Hey, support LGBTQ, whatever.’ I mean, there’s just clear things that you should support.” —OSU professor Lawrence Ware

Priest also compared HB 1775 to prior controversies over other classroom instruction, noting that Oklahoma legislation was filed several years ago targeting Advanced Placement (AP) History courses, which were criticized at the time for content. A letter signed by more than 100 academic historians and educators had declared that a proposed AP History revision “shortchanges students by imposing on them an arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history. We favor instead a robust, vivid, and content-rich account of our unfolding national drama, warts and all, a history that is alert to all the ways we have disagreed and fallen short of our ideals, while emphasizing the ways that we remain one nation with common ideals and a shared story.”

The letter warned that the proposed AP History changes would downplay “essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution,” and that there were “notable political or ideological biases inherent in the 2014 framework.”

Those signing the letter included Wilfred McClay, the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma; John T. Fishel, lecturer at the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma; and former Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman.

Priest described opponents of the AP History revisions as believing “that nothing historically has been done wrong in America.”

She also appeared to voice support for racial reparations, citing the 1921 destruction of the Greenwood district in Tulsa, which was home to wealthy African Americans at the time.

“Even 100 years later, knowing that we wiped out the wealth and the opportunity that was so good and was building for the Greenwood district, we today can’t even talk about reparations for that without an enormous amount of anger and angst,” Priest said.

Panelists were also asked to respond to a comment made by state Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, who said, “America has become too preoccupied with the color of people’s skin.”

Lawrence Ware, a teaching assistant professor and diversity liaison in the Department of Philosophy at Oklahoma State University, responded: “He’s comfortable with being preoccupied when black people are the people who are the targets, but he’s not comfortable with being preoccupied when we’re now pushing back and now white people are the targets.”

Jett is Cherokee and his wife is a native of Brazil.

Ware said he does “teach through the lens of Critical Race Theory” but said that “does not necessarily mean that I am indoctrinating them. I’m just educating them.”

Ware and Adam Soltani, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, were the only minorities on the panel. Priest, Fleck and Waldron are white.

“The way that I teach, I never tell them what I think about anything. I just present both sides of it,” Ware said. “When I’m teaching it, I have an idea about what I want, like, what I like, but I don’t tell them that. Right? But I’m trying to educate them. That’s not me indoctrinating them. Now, when it comes to, like, homosexuality, I teach them, ‘Hey, support LGBTQ, whatever.’ I mean, there’s just clear things that you should support.”

When it came time to answer the question that gave the panel its title— Is America a ‘Fundamentally Racist Nation’?—panelists were unequivocal.

“This was a country that was birthed in racism and that’s a fact that we’re never going to escape,” Fleck said. “So the answer then is we need to all, no matter your color, accept that as truth and work together to fix it, to make it truly whole, to provide true equity, because remember we’re not there yet. And if you’re white, we need to be specifically committed to tearing down the systems that we have built, because it has been us that has constructed these systems of power and discrimination and we need to be active in the work to tear them down.”

“I really, really wish that all the white people in this world were like Shannon, because things would get better,” Ware said. “But they’re not because they voted for Donald Trump and they support Donald Trump and they refuse to tell the truth about what’s happening. And so, while I really, really wish that things would get better, I just don’t have any faith that it will. I just think that we have to find a way to persevere in the reality of racism being here.”