State Watch

Tensions run high ahead of Oklahoma vote on ’emergency’ race instruction rules

Tensions ran high at a meeting held by the Oklahoma State Board of Education on Monday when community members took the podium to share their thoughts on critical race theory ahead of the body’s vote to adopt “emergency” rules on race instruction.

Among a list of agenda items the board considered on Monday were the proposed rules for House Bill 1775, legislation Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) signed into law last month that bans the teaching of certain concepts about race and sex in schools.

Those concepts include ideas that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that an individual should feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish” on account of his or her race or sex, and that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race.”

A number of community members who were given time to share their thoughts on the bill spoke out against critical race theory, though the law does not specifically name the concept, nor did the board meeting’s agenda items detailing the vote. 

The first member to take the stand cited some of those concepts when discussing the “tenets” of critical race theory, though experts have said the actual tenets of the theory, which asserts that racism is embedded in the country’s institutions, are not the same those being criticized and banned by Republicans in classrooms.

“What happened to Martin Luther King’s dream of people being judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin?” the woman said.

A woman who identified herself as a teacher briefly mentioned the theory before discussing bias training she said educators were required to undergo in public schools.

“They tried to convince me that I have white privilege. Yes, I do have white privilege: the privilege to pay my taxes to go to work every day to support my God in my country. Those are my privileges,” she said. “I will never apologize for what God has made me. God doesn’t make mistakes.” 

“Teachers were required to train every Wednesday on the Tulsa Race Massacre. Why was it OK to call it the Tulsa Race Riot for 99 years, even under an African American president?” she also stated.

Another woman who took the podium said she believes critical race theory prejudges “every experience by assuming that one must look critically at those around them for fear that the race or sex will dictate superiority, that by virtue of your race or sex you are superior or that solely by your experiences as a preferred race or sex.”

A Black student appeared to be the only community member to voice support for the concept.

“Nobody is telling children that they’re bad people because of Christopher Columbus, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson,” she said. 

“I can remember my first experience of racism offhand. I was 8 years old,” she said. “But it seems as though no one really, truly cares about my experience.”

“Everyone else’s experiences matter except for my life,” she said. “Why is my life political? I’m a human being just like everyone else in this room right now.”

The meeting comes as Republican lawmakers in states across the country have passed similarly worded legislation in recent months banning so-called divisive concepts that conservatives tied to the theory, though a number of the bills avoid using the term.

Education leaders and experts on the theory have spoken out against the measures, calling them unnecessary, noting that the concept is generally not taught in K-12 classes and accusing Republican lawmakers of misleading the public on the theory.

Laura Renée Chandler, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Oglethorpe University, told The Hill last month that people “should reject or at least be a little bit more critical about having this conversation” on the terms of the conservatives who are targeting it, whom she noted are “not even defining it correctly.”

“It’s really important that we have informed voices who understand this work and who understand what teachers are actually doing in the classroom,” she said. “Those are the people who should have the conversation and not these politicians.”

During the board meeting on Monday, Carlisha Bradley, the board’s sole Black member, who also voted against the proposed rules, said she felt based on what was shared by others in the meeting that some were “operating on an unclear definition of critical race theory.”

“I do believe that this bill and these rules continue to propel fear in teaching the true and accurate history of our country,” Bradley said before going on to describe the education she received in the state’s public school system. 

“I think about my instruction and experiences and oftentimes it started with slavery, Martin Luther King had a dream, and then here we are. That negated the complexities of being a Black woman, person, student in America,” she said.

“It left room for conversations that were not had in the classroom to move, grow and evolve as human beings to arrive at a more equitable society,” Bradley said, adding that she believes the rules the board eventually voted to adopt as a result of the recent legislation passed in the state are “robbing students of the opportunity to have a high-quality education, to think critically about the world around us and to build a more just society.”

“And, you know, when we’re quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and being judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin, I think that we’re glossing over the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. led a radical movement for justice on many levels, racial justice, economic justice, and it challenged the laws and systems that we continue to uphold,” she also said.

Her comments were met with a response from another member of the board ahead of the vote that noted the members haven’t “always agreed on everything 100 percent.” 

“There truly is not a way for us to really come to a true understanding of what critical race theory is until we understand that this truly is just a theory,” the member said before adding that “everyone that is in this room has a worldview.”

Bradley followed by saying she questions who the laws were “created in support of” based on their verbiage and encouraged others to “really take a crosswalk of the impact of” similar legislation.

“We just got these rules minutes before this meeting, and the people that this impacts — our schools and students and teachers — did not get to weigh in on the impact of a decision that we’re making as board members,” she said.

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