Culture & the Family
Perception of Oklahoma unharmed by racist incidents
October 14, 2021
Six years ago, some members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma were caught on video engaging in a racist chant that included the n-word and a reference to lynching. Last year, an announcer for an Oklahoma high school girls basketball game was caught on a hot mic using a racial slur to refer to a team whose members protested during the national anthem.
Critics have claimed such incidents, which were widely publicized by national media, irreparably tar the reputation of Oklahoma and cause people and businesses to decline to move to the state.
But during a recent forum on race, two experts said they’ve seen little evidence to support that belief.
Kian Kamas, executive director of the Tulsa Authority for Economic Opportunity, said negative perceptions of Oklahoma are largely tied to outmoded views of the state in general, not a strong belief that the state is thoroughly racist.
“People just don’t know a lot about Oklahoma,” Kamas said. “And if they do, it’s some of the negative tropes: ‘They just live in the Wild West.’ They just have this image of Oklahoma that isn’t necessarily very modern.”
“There’s an absence of broad knowledge and understanding of Oklahoma,” said Dr. Jason F. Kirksey, vice president for institutional diversity at Oklahoma State University.
Kamas said such misperceptions are quickly dispelled once officials visit Oklahoma.
Kamas and Kirksey were featured presenters at the monthly session of Advancing Oklahoma, an online program described as “a lengthy conversation about race and race relations in Oklahoma.”
The October session focused on image and “how Oklahoma is perceived on a national scale,” with panelists asked to describe “how Oklahoma’s views on race affects its reputation, recruitment of business, visitors, and conventions, and its place on the national stage.”
Kamas said the national-image challenges facing Oklahoma are not unusual.
“I think a lot of states face this,” Kamas said. “A lot of states, they kind of get piped with the worst of the news stories about them, and that becomes a national perception that we all have to work against as we’re doing our work in helping people understand what’s actually happening here in the community.”
Kirksey said state officials have a “great opportunity to share and expand on a very positive, powerful, and impactful narrative about Oklahoma” based on its history of progress, and he said racial minorities have made significant educational gains in Oklahoma in recent years, based on data at OSU, and those gains occurred without affirmative-action programs.
“We’ve had a 105-percent increase in enrollment of students of color in the last decade,” Kirksey said. “That wasn’t new money. That wasn’t scholarships. We’re the eighth of nine states that have an anti-affirmative-action provision, so we don’t have any specialized scholarships that do that.”
He said the share of minority students who have earned bachelor’s degrees at OSU has similarly increased by 110 percent in the past 10 years.
Kamas said individuals who have moved to Oklahoma have found that they can “build a life” in “Tulsa just as well as I can in San Francisco or New York City, and while there may be challenges, they’re generally still many of the same challenges that they faced in those other cities.”
Kamas said she fears some businesses strike Oklahoma off their list due to negative stories like those about the OU fraternity’s racist chant. However, there is no way to quantify any such effect if it even exists and the state continues to draw interest from companies looking to relocate or expand.
The Advancing Oklahoma program is offered to the members of Leadership Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Academy, Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits, Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
Prior sessions of the program have included one where a speaker claimed there is a “very high correlation between the most racist attitudes in America and white evangelical Christianity.”
Paycom is the presenting sponsor for the program while 12 other entities are listed as lower-tier sponsors. In a March 3, 2020 letter to the University of Oklahoma’s board of regents, Paycom CEO Chad Richison declared that the university’s “previous diversity training efforts failed because they assured free speech protection.”
However, to whatever degree racism impacts Oklahoma today, officials at the October session of Advancing Oklahoma indicated those challenges are present in most states and other countries.
Kamas said there are “hidden and insidious forms of racism” that continue to impact people today, but that those forms of racism are not geographically confined.
“Those are the forms of racism that I think exist nationally, globally,” Kamas said.
“It’s important to know our past and know our history and learn and grow from it,” Kirksey said, “but I always say the past is a place of reference, not residence.”