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Opinion Two voices of resistance to the critical race theory backlash in Oklahoma

People hold candles during a vigil for the centennial commemorations of the Tulsa Race Massacre in the historic Greenwood neighborhood on May 31 in Tulsa. (John Locher/AP)
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OKLAHOMA CITY — This week at the Oklahoma State Department of Education building, I was schooled in how the stealthy, well-orchestrated movement against teaching honestly about America’s racist history operates. It is fast and furious and determined to steamroll over truth in education.

But Monday morning, one Black woman and a Black high school student tried to hold the line. Though they were on the losing side of that steamroll — this is Oklahoma, after all — their courage and resistance in the face of white supremacy deserve to be celebrated.

The occasion was consideration of item 8(b) on the Oklahoma Board of Education’s meeting agenda: emergency rules for implementing a bill passed in May by the Republican-controlled state legislature limiting what students in the state can be taught on race and gender. Notice of the item was publicly posted only last Friday, giving educators and advocates next to no time to organize a response. The actual rules, too, were made available just minutes before the meeting. They included chillingly harsh penalties, such as teacher suspensions and district defunding, for instruction that makes any individual feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

Carlisha Williams Bradley arrived knowing she would cast one of the most consequential votes of her professional life. The only Black member of the board, she wondered whether she would be removed from her position for pushing back. But the education advocate and former executive director of Tulsa Legacy Charter School spoke truth: that the right-wing’s current bête noire, “critical race theory” — which the legislature claimed to be responding to — means merely the examination of laws and legislation that uphold racism and oppression. Oklahoma’s new education law and harsh punishment, she said, would serve only to generate fear in teaching an accurate history of the United States.

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“We are robbing students of the opportunity to have a high-quality education,” Williams Bradley said.

Williams Bradley had no allies on the board, but she found one among the public. “What does critical race theory mean to you?” pointedly asked Sapphira Lloyd, a 16-year-old Black student who attends Millwood Public Schools in Oklahoma City.

Lloyd got an answer from the six women who spoke before her, almost all of them White. One compared critical race theory to bullying. Another said it was reminiscent of the pretext to the Rwandan genocide. Some of them began to cry at the podium. The teenage Lloyd had the more adult attitude: “We should be able to discuss critical race topics no matter how ugly they may be and teach kids how to handle having hard conversations.”

And she came armed, too, with facts and history, a contrast to the fury and hyperbole on the other side. She knew that less than 10 percent of American high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, and that students are rarely taught that Thomas Jefferson believed that Black people were inferior to Whites.

Lloyd told the board that she was 8 when she had her first experience of racism. “It seems as though no one really truly cares about my experience … everyone else’s experiences matter, except for my life,” she testified — before heartbreakingly, in a country that often doesn’t allow Black children to be children, referring to herself as a woman. “Why is my having the right to live my life as a Black woman in America looked at as a political game?"

Ultimately, there would be little debate, though Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister acknowledged the lack of transparency with the process and then voted yes on the emergency rules anyway. Once the governor signs off on them, Oklahoma will have the harshest penalties in the nation for the crime of making White people uncomfortable.

“We didn’t ask for this law,” Hofmeister told me with an air of helplessness, arguing that the move was necessary for the sake of clarity. Other officials admitted that they had never received a complaint with regard to critical race theory. In fact, they claimed to be proud that Oklahoma was finally beginning to include its ugly history — this is where the Tulsa massacre occurred, as we were all reminded this year — in its teaching standards. And yet they undermined this progress anyway.

Williams Bradley, the mother of a 2-year-old boy, knew she had done the best she could for him and Oklahoma’s Black children. “White people will not save us,” Williams Bradley said to me, and she was right. In the end, the rest of the board — despite its duty to safeguard the educational interests of Oklahoma’s children — surrendered to the storm of White panic and ignorance without a fight.

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