One hundred years ago today, mobs of armed white supremacists violently attacked and killed Black residents and destroyed Black businesses in Tulsa, Okla., in the Greenwood District.
The Tulsa Race Massacre is one of the most devastating and egregious instances of anti-Black violence in American history. Despite this, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Sitt recently signed House Bill 1775, which prohibits public school teachers from discussing critical race theory (CRT), a theoretical framework that helps anyone interested in meaningful examination of race and racism, specifically white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and the enduring impact of the operationalization of these social constructs in American politics, law and society.
Sitt claims the bill denounces notions that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another,” and that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.” In reality, the bill will do the exact opposite by barring meaningful, fact-based discussions that are informed by what critical race theorists call “counter narratives” to paint more vivid pictures about race and privilege in America.
As applied to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, the bill would force educators to frame this poignant, historical display of white supremacy as (isolated) bad actors, without also acknowledging how their actions were both shaped by and, as a result, shape the world we live in today. The supremacists who engaged in the Tulsa Race Massacre murdered dozens of Black people and destroyed more than 1,200 buildings in the Black Greenwood neighborhood, obliterating decades of accumulated Black wealth. This continues to have massive implications on American society today.
The ongoing debate about whether educators should be allowed to teach critical race theory speaks to the enduring power and privilege of whiteness. Among other things, critical race theory emphasizes how the concept of race was invented to suppress Black people and their access to equal rights. That people in positions of power are attempting to erase or hide historical facts that can be more fully appreciated with the application of tools like CRT speaks to the enduring power of white privilege to obfuscate the role and power of whiteness.
In reality, many Oklahoma educators have denounced the law, arguing that it will only impede teachers from addressing Oklahoma’s harrowing racist history; consequently harming students who do not have a choice in the schools they’re forced to attend, which could potentially weaken our social fabric and country. Fortunately for educators who seek to teach fact based history, attempts to hide and suppress CRT will only draw more attention to the enduring roles of whiteness and white supremacy as well as the tools that exist to identify and disrupt traditional roles of race and racism in Oklahoma and throughout the country.
As a leader of a civil rights organization with a specific focus on Black LGBTQ+\SGL people, I earnestly encourage legislators and educators who wish to ignore or do not understand the historical significance of white supremacy in American history to consider another profession. While students are often enrolled in public schools they do not choose, legislators and educators have more efficiency in regard to their professions.
Whitewashed history puts everyone at a disadvantage — white people, people of color and queer people alike. United States history started before 1619; it includes free, poor Black, indigenous and white people working side by side as indentured servants. The concept of race was created to separate low-income and working class poor people into categories. As a result, low-income white people often think of themselves as white first and marginalized second, if at all. These fallacies are repeated, and have been throughout the past 100 years, when we oversimplify over America’s complex history with racism and white supremacy. Anyone who seeks to learn more about any of this should visit the groundbreaking scholarship of Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project.
Although bills like HB 1775 in Oklahoma are passed under the guise of inclusivity by elected officials like Gov. Sitt, they really drive us apart. This law is not the first or last to attack CRT; it is not the first or last piece of legislation that will undermine efforts to educate students and reckon with America’s collective and deeply troubling past.
David Johns is the executive director of The National Black Justice Coalition.