OKLAHOMA CITY — Rep. Monroe Nichols was the first person in his family born after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the first to grow up in a country where segregation was no longer legal and the playing field for Black Americans presumably had been leveled.
But centuries of racial inequity can still be found in systems of housing, employment and education, Nichols said, which requires an honest conversation about the past and how it affects the present.
“There’s a push right now to ignore history, but I wish my colleagues (in the state Legislature) would understand that this is not a conversation about blame; this is a conversation about how to close the gap,” said Nichols, a Tulsa Democrat.
On Monday, Oklahoma’s Legislative Black Caucus hosted its first Black History Day at the state Capitol, a building steeped in history but where some of that history has become a political flashpoint in recent years.
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Some Republicans have publicly rejected concepts of systemic racism, using terms like “indoctrination” and “woke” to decry efforts that explore how past racial inequities continue today.
Two years ago, lawmakers passed a law banning the teaching that one race is superior to another, but many of the legislation’s supporters said it was meant to end the academic concept of critical race theory, a belief that racism goes beyond personal beliefs and can be systemic.
The law has caused some schools to question the books on their shelves and the lessons they allow, which some teachers believe has stifled classroom discussions.
Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s newly elected state superintendent, has announced investigations into school programs designed to promote diversity and tolerance, claiming that they “indoctrinate” students.
Last month, Gov. Kevin Stitt, who like Walters is a Republican, criticized college diversity programs in his State of the State address.
“I want our universities to have less DEI officers and more career placement counselors,” Stitt said in his address, referring to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that promote a better understanding of discrimination within a school, business or organization.
On Monday, Stitt addressed the crowd at Black History Day, telling the hundreds of students and community leaders gathered that the state’s civil rights leaders had paved the way for a better future.
Because of Black leaders from the past, “the American Dream is alive and well in our state,” Stitt said.
Nichols said he appreciated the governor’s participation in the event but worried that Stitt’s recent rhetoric not only fanned the flames of divisiveness but also prevented lawmakers from having serious conversations about systemic inequities, including the over-incarceration of Black men and racial disparities within the health care system.
“There have always been speed bumps along the way (to progress) and those speed bumps have often been folks who sought political power by appealing to our worst instincts,” Nichols said. “I think the governor is guilty of this in a way.
“At a time when we have money to invest in Oklahoma, at a time when Oklahoma’s economy is at its strongest, they’ve chosen to instead focus on issues of race and appealing to the worst in people.”
Some of the more than two dozen speakers during Monday’s event echoed Nichols’ thoughts on the importance of confronting America’s history with slavery and segregation.
Paris Powell, a mentor with a Midwest City-based youth program, said he was inspired by a speech from Marilyn Luper Hildreth, the daughter of civil rights icon Clara Luper, who led “sit-ins” in Oklahoma City more than 60 years ago.
“She said it is important to remember the past but it is more important to understand where you are at in the present in the Black history that we are still making today,” Powell said. “I believe coming together like this, with the governor coming out and all the other lawmakers, it’s a huge first step.”