Attacks on LGBTQ+ kids and teachers as “preparers” and “indoctrinators” have mostly replaced right-wing hysteria over critical race theory, but Oklahoma Public Schools Superintendent Ryan Walters, was ready to show his around 2021 “I don’t know what the CRT is but that won’t stop me from talking about it” he snapped on Thursday evening.
Walter took questions at the Norman Central Library, and although the event was sponsored by a Republican party in the county, it had some tough ones. Like, “Why are you banning books and coming to speak in a library?” Someone even brought a laugh track. But a question about the Tulsa Race Massacre really laid bare the willful ignorance and vacuity of how Republicans accuse CRT of deflecting serious talk about US history.
The interrogator wasn’t letting Walters get away with this one, ask several times“How does the Tulsa Race Massacre not fall under your definition of CRT?”
Here’s how it happened:
Walters: I would never tell a kid that because of your race, because of the color of your skin or your gender or anything like that, you’re less of a person or you’re inherently racist. That doesn’t mean you don’t judge the actions of individuals, oh you absolutely can, historically you should: it was right, it was wrong, they did it for that reason. But to say it was inherent, in the sense that it’s because of their skin that I say it’s critical race theory, you say a race defines a person, I reject that. So I would say that you are making a judgment on the problem, on the action, on the content of the character of the individual, absolutely. But let’s not make the connection with skin color and say that skin color determined that.
Audience Member: Another Follow-up: How the Tulsa Race Massacre Happened not match your definition of CRT?
Walters: I answered it, that’s my answer, and again, I felt like…
Audience Member: The Tulsa race massacre was a race massacre! How does this not fall under the CRT?
Walters: I answered your question, I appreciate it, you were very respectful…
Audience Member: The hundred years of silence was about race. How does this not qualify for the CRT?
As the audience member said, the Tulsa Race Massacre was a race massacre. And Walters’ answer just doesn’t make sense. He refuses to engage with the substance of the historical question – despite being a former high school history teacher – insisting on talking about how history can be taught as a purely individual matter of skin color and maybe, maybe of individual motivations in which “it was good, it was bad, they did it for this reason”. He says it is permissible in Oklahoma schools to say that mass murder and property destruction are morally wrong, but any discussion of racial motivations for killing and property destruction is immediately suspect.
The way Walters refused to answer the real question, or even name the Tulsa Race massacre, is significant. It shows the official approach to Run in Oklahoma Schools: Evade. To dodge. Duck. And when rushed, the thing to really focus on is that white people shouldn’t feel bad. Don’t worry, white people! You are not responsible for any of this!
Let’s be clear: Black Tulsa residents, with good reason to fear a black teenager was about to be lynched, moved to protect him from a growing mob. This became the pretext for the lynching mob that had already gathered to brutalize not just a young man but an entire community. No one knows exactly how many people were killed or injured. A thriving community has been destroyed. And it was all about race, starting with the fact that a mob of hundreds of white people had gathered to lynch a teenager for having, as anyone could determine after the fact, possibly grabbing another teenager’s arm (white, female). There was a context for this, a context of racial violence designed to keep black people oppressed.
It is not that “skin color determined this” in a universal and timeless way, but this race, as socially constructed in this place and time, was the key force that shaped these events and that if you don’t talk about it, you’re not really teaching the story of what happened. And, one critical race theorist might add, race is a key force shaping US history, law, and economics far more broadly than simply causing specific racial slaughter. But nothing in critical race theory as it exists outside the republican imagination concerns anything inherent in skin color.
Critical race theory is an intellectual movement which argues, broadly (and with many schools of thought within it), that, as Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explain in “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction”, racism is “the usual way in which society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country”; that “large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it”; that race itself is socially constructed that “the dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to changing needs such as the labor market”; that “no one has a single, easily articulated, unitary identity” (an idea often discussed as intersectionality); and that people of color know things about their own experiences that white people should listen to.
In other words, Ryan Walters should get the term “CRT” out of his mouth because he has no idea what it means. What he has is the Republican definition: “CRT recognizes the existence of race or racism in a way that might make the most fragile white person uncomfortable.” And apparently that means Oklahoma’s top education official can’t answer a question about the Tulsa Race Massacre when talking about the Tulsa Race Massacre.