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Tulsa and a Good Faith Effort to Grapple with History and Divisions That Plague the Country
Judy Woodruff returned to Tulsa, where she was born in 1946, for an episode in her America at the Crossroads series for PBS NewsHour. Her focus is on the city’s efforts to come to terms with the legacy of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, when the thriving black neighborhood known as Greenwood was burned to the ground and hundreds of its residents killed. Woodruff talks about her own experience and has converations with four Tulsans that reflect differing views about the massacre, how far Tulsa has come, and what remains to be done: Kristi Williams, a community activist and descendent of a woman who lived through the massacre as a teen; Williams’ friend City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, the only black member of the city council; Tulsa’s mayor, Republican G. T. Bynum; and Janice Danforth, founder and chapter chair of Tulsa Moms for Liberty. These conversations reflect broad and deep divides that beset the country. Their themes run beyond a single terrible event in the city once known as the “Oil Capital of the World,” now home to the Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan centers.
Woodruff left Tulsa before the age of five but returned frequently over the years to visit relatives, especially her grandmother who lived in north Tulsa. Like many of us she does not remember hearing anything about Greenwood until news reports began to circulate a few years ago with the approach of the 100th anniversary of the event. When she asked her cousins, they too did not remember mention of the massacre. Two cousins told her it was not taught in schools they attended. Williams, the community activist, told Woodruff it was not taught or discussed in most of the black schools either.
Following the carnage of the massacre, many Greenwood buildings and businesses were rebuilt. But in the decades that followed, developers built a highway through the heart of Greenwood, which, combined with housing discrimination in the form of race-restrictive covenants and redlining, drove many residents north. (Woodruff)
Hall-Harper represents Tulsa’s First District in north Tulsa, where many black Tulsans live today. She gave Woodruff a tour of the district. The area suffers from poor housing, health care, nutrition, and employment. Vacant houses and lots abound.
Hall-Harper tells Woodruff that it is not enough for the city to apologize for the 1921 massacre and its aftermath. “She's currently helping to lead a series of community conversations called Beyond Apology to try to engage residents over what more the city should do, including on the question of reparations.” When asked what she means exactly when she speaks of reparations, Hall-Harper replies, “reparations to me is land and cash,” for the victims and their descendents. She appears to recognize that others may hold different different views in good faith. “What,” she asks, “does that form of reparations look like? I think those are conversations that we must have.”
Mayor Bynum represents a brand of Republican that does not attract a lot of notice these days. He has apologized for the city’s failure to protect black Tulsans 100 years ago. Like Hall-Harper, he emphasizes the importance of conversation and dialogue. “We’re home to the consequences of not talking about difficult history for three quarters of a century," he says. His views on reparations strike me as sensible, which is to say, they are in line with my own.
The public has overwhelmingly supported our work around economic development. One could view all of that work as reparations. There are others who say, we have got to levy a property tax on everyone who lives in Tulsa and issue cash payments. That, to me, is a much more challenging question, because you're financially penalizing everyone who lives in Tulsa today for something that criminals did 100 years ago.
But we're going through a dialogue. And the way I think you address it is to keep the dialogue going.
A reliable source confirmed that my impression of Bynum is accurate, as is the impression that Hall-Harper seems to be a tad contentious but okay. I am told that she can be a little bit of a loose cannon, but among the circus performers on a city council described as a mess, she cannot be singled out as an outlandish nut-job. From my vantage in Portland, where the standard of comparison lies with former city councilmembers Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly, Hall-Harper comes across almost statesmanlike in conversation with Woodruff.
The hot-button issue of education is unavoidable. Tulsa seems to be fairly liberal by Oklahoma standards, but it is still Oklahoma, where, Woodruff reports, “In 2021, despite opposition from school boards and public universities across the state, Governor Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 1775, legislation restricting how history can be taught in public schools." The bill
includes a provision that says no individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex, which some worry is so broad and subjective that it's having a chilling effect on the teaching of difficult subjects, like the 1921 massacre."
Tulsa was the first school district in the state to be accused of violating state laws that regulate how schools teach about race and gender. Last summer accreditation ratings for Tulsa and another school district were downgraded because teachers took part in implicit bias training.
Woodruff gives Janice Danforth of Tulsa Moms for Liberty a forum as a dissenting voice. Danforth puts the 1921 massacre down to “some people in that time frame that were not good people. The Ku Klux Klan was a terrible organization that did terrible things to Black people.” She wants Tulsa Public Schools to “pay the price” for violating the law. Academics, she tells Woodruff, are the only things schools should be focusing on, “not diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
When asked by Woodruff if she is saying it is wrong for teachers to be conscious of diversity, Danforth replied, “Not at all,” before falling back on an incoherent litany of non sequiturs that culminated in a dash of red-baiting when Woodruff reasonably asked, “Then what is the argument?
Well, Critical Race Theory, or if you want to look at diversity, equity, inclusion, we don't — equity is making everyone equal. That's not the case, right?
We can't be — all have the same thing. That is Marxism, literally. We want equitable, not equity, where everyone has the same opportunity.
Difficult subjects can be taught in all manner of ways found objectionable by people like Danforth that have nothing, nada, zilch to do with critical race theory (I write this as someone critical of certain tenets of critical race theory and of the faithful who accept its teaching as revealed truth handed down from on high). Diversity, equity, and inclusion enhance the common culture. Rigid, ham-fisted application of these ideals is counter-productive, all too common, and should be called out for criticism. Countering liberal excess and foolishness by putting education in the hands of the ignorant and benighted, as appears to be the policy in a number of states and locales, is a less than optimal approach.
The latest absurd incident is the removal of Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” published under that title in a special edition with a foreword by Oprah Winfrey, from elementary school access at Bob Graham Education Center, a K–8 school in Miami, after a complaint by a single parent who admitted she has read only “snippets” of books she has sought to have banned because of “indirect hate messages,” references to critical race theory, and gender indoctrination. “I’m not an expert,” she says. “I’m not a reader. I’m not a book person.” Her complaint incorrectly stated that Winfrey is the author. Ron DeSantis of course spoke up on behalf of the book-banning enthusiast. (Chappell, 1 complaint; Luscombe, DeSantis appears to back woman; Murray, Florida school).*
Relevant meanings of “equity” found at Merriam-Webster say nothing that would equate equity with making everyone equal:
1 a : justice according to natural law or right
b : something that is equitable
3 a : a system of law originating in the English chancery and comprising a settled and formal body of legal and procedural rules and doctrines that supplement, aid, or override common and statute law and are designed to protect rights and enforce duties fixed by substantive law
equitable 1 : having or exhibiting equity : dealing fairly and equally with all concerned
Danforth cannot be bothered with such distinctions. She thinks and speaks in the empty jargon fashionable on the right, blithely ignorant, neither knowing nor caring that she does not know. (Yes, the left has its share of empty jargon too, a topic for another day perhaps).
The charge of Marxism is laughable. It is a safe bet that Danforth is not conversant with The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte or The German Ideology or anything about The Communist Manifesto beyond the title. In this she is in lockstep with the MAGA know-nothing crowd and congressional Republicans who traffic in denunications of socialists, communists, and Marxists like it is 1950 all over again. It would be nearer the mark to turn the charge of Marxist on them, with Groucho in mind, but that would be unfair to Groucho.
Moms for Liberty and kindred spirits might be surprised to learn that I agree that, as Danforth, referring to the 1921 massacre, puts it, “kids can learn about it without having to have that concept put on them like it's their fault.” Much comes down to what is taught and how. Students should not be taught to feel shame for wrongs of which they had no part. This does not mean they should be protected from exposure to dark sides of American history that were downplayed, papered over, whitewashed, so to speak, or ignored altogether by textbooks and even well-meaning teachers as was the norm when I was in school.
Concern that the provision in Oklahoma law that says no individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex is, as Judy Woodruff points out, so broad and subjective that it will have a chilling effect on the teaching of difficult subjects, subjects that in fact the law’s authors would prefer to be given no more than passing mention or presented with the false narrative that they are aberrations, anomalies, the work of a few bad actors. The Oklahoma law and others like it are tools for the promotion of a sanitized version of American history with the erasure of historical facts that should make us feel uncomfortable. It is not shame that children should feel upon learning about these things but moral responsibility to come to terms with a sometimes dark past and address its effects, wrongs and injustice that plague the lives of innocent individuals and communities to this day. Covering up wrongs and injustice to which the country is prey is a betrayal of its founding principles. It undermines the constitutional commitment to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for us all.
Tulsa, its history, and responses to it reflect divisions and differences that play out across the country. Judy Woodruff’s report relates good faith efforts to grapple with that history and those divisions. Maybe the picture Woodrfuff paints is too hopeful. These conflicts rage fiercely in many places across the country. The shining city on the hill that Ronald Reagan invoked is distant now, obscured in fog and haze, or maybe that is smoke from flames that threaten to consume it.
From the beginning the country has fallen short of ideals upon which it was founded. We do well to remember that it is on the basis of those same ideals that we criticize it for falling short. It is in that spirit that we pursue conversation and dialogue however much the call for conversation and dialogue may seem like wishful thinking.
More anon if I pull together an ambitious project to examine two antithetical approaches to American history: the Hillsdale College 1776 Curriculum and the 1619 Project.
Keep the faith. Stand with Ukraine.
Yr obdt svt
Tulsa faces reckoning over historical racism as state law restricts how history is taught (video and transcript)
Bill Chappell, 1 complaint led a Florida school to restrict access to Amanda Gorman's famous poem, NPR, May 25, 2023
Richard Luscombe, DeSantis appears to back woman who led Amanda Gorman poem school ban, The Guardian, May 26, 2023)
Joan Murray, Florida school moves Amanda Gorman's poem "The Hill We Climb" to middle school section after complaint, CBS News, May 24, 2023
*Memo from the Editorial Desk: This piece was updated on May 27, 2023, in the paragraph beginning “The latest absurd incident” to correct the misstatement that Amanda Gorman’s inaugation poem “The Hill We Climbed” was banned by a Miami school district. I also typo’d her name as “Gorham” in the original publication, for which I apologize. I could use an editor, but that is no excuse. CBS News and NPR reports on the story were added to the list of references.
Miami-Dade schools issued a statement which read in part:
"No literature (books or poem) has been banned or removed. It was determined at the school that The Hill We Climb is better suited for middle school students and, it was shelved in the middle school section of the media center. The book remains available in the media center." (Murray)
NPR reported that this area is reserved for middle school students. Other reports cited above stated that elementary school students no longer have access to the book. The parent wanted the book removed entirely. In response to the complaint form’s question asking for what age group she would recommend this material, she wrote, “Not for schools.”
I reread “The Hill We Climb” and found no basis for the complaint, which refers specifically to indirect hate messages on pp. 12–13. Chappell at NPR states that these pages read:
We've braved the belly of the beast. We've learned that quiet isn't always peace, And the norms and notions of what "just is" Isn't always justice. And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it. Somehow, we've weathered and witnessed A nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished.
It is fair to argue that “The Hill We Climb” is better suited for higher grade levels. The poem may well challenge fifth grade students, but I do not think it would be beyond any who are interested and see no reason why it should be made unavailable to them.
Reagan Miller of the Florida Freedom to Read Project told NPR that many school districts are handling complaints about books very cautiously from fear of being investigated, not unreasonable given Florida’s current political climate and lack of clear legal guidance. In other words, Florida’s law is working as DeSantis and Republicans in the state legislature intended.
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