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Your Turn: Oklahoma Bill Preventing Race, Gender Trainings Holds Oklahoma Back

May 2, 2021

This year marks the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the many dark stains on Oklahoma’s past. Instead of using this moment to tell the truth and confront a painful history, our lawmakers are advancing legislation that stifles honest conversation in our education systems.

HB1775 would keep our children and college students from seeing the full picture of our history. The Legislature used this bill, originally designed to combat brain injuries and concussions in sports, to ban gender diversity trainings at colleges and prevent K-12 schools from teaching about race and gender. Education can be a tool to expand minds, and the Legislature shouldn’t form barriers to learning.

Higher education exposes students to different theories and lenses, allowing students to apply critical thinking to understand the world around us. Our Legislature would deny that opportunity for exposure, higher thinking and creating inclusive environments by banning diversity trainings. When we choose to deny our past and ignore it, we put ourselves at risk to repeat it.

The truth is that all-Black towns and neighborhoods existed in Oklahoma because of policy. The first law on the books when our state formed required segregation. Greenwood, a once thriving, self-sustaining and affluent Black community in North Tulsa, was burned to the ground by white neighbors and law enforcement. Survivor accounts tell us that thousands of Black residents were displaced, an unknown number left dead. Businesses and homes burned to the ground. The white attackers tied Black bodies to the back of vehicles and dragged them for miles. The survivors’ submitted insurance claims, and the companies denied them.

Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma provided no restitution — to this day — for Greenwood to recover. Many of the assailants returned to their regular lives, their jobs, their families and their affiliations while they left Black Greenwood residents to struggle to rebuild. One hundred years later, a highway cuts through the area where Black Wall Street once thrived. Barely a handful of Black-owned businesses exist there today, and most never recovered. As in many areas where intentional destruction of Black neighborhoods took place, poverty rates in North Tulsa are higher today, life expectancy lower and food deserts abundant.

It’s difficult to confront that part of our state’s founding involved stolen lands, racist policies and destruction. But we have to in order to understand how past traumas show up in the present and find a path to future reconciliation. Selective memory keeps us from a full picture and an accurate narrative of who we are and where we’ve been.

HB1775 now sits on Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk. He has the opportunity to make it right. Bills like this make Oklahoma appear intolerant and hostile to diversity. If he aspires to make Oklahoma a state where businesses want to move and families want to raise their children — and where citizens can handle the truth — then he must veto this legislation.

Bailey Perkins is vice chair, Oklahoma Women’s Coalition.

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