Teaching about racism without discussing race?

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Ryan Walters, a far right-wing education official who currently serves as Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction, recently caused a political firestorm when he insisted the Tulsa race massacre can be taught in public schools without amounting to “critical race theory” —so long as it’s taught without discussing race.

Walters, a senior level state education administrator, made the comments during a forum at the Norman Public Library earlier this month after he was asked how accurately teaching about the infamous white supremacist massacre – which killed as many as 300 Black people – wouldn’t violate a state ban on teaching critical race theory.

“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 are less of a person or are inherently racist,” he told the audience, according to media reports. “That doesn’t mean you don’t judge the actions of individuals. Oh, you can. Absolutely, historically, you should. ‘This was right. This was wrong. They did this for this reason.’ But to say it was inherent in that because of their skin is where I say that is critical race theory. You’re saying that race defines a person.”

Not surprisingly, such a foolish response did not go over well.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, executive director at Justice for Greenwood, harshly criticized Walters’ comments, saying it was “beyond belief” coming from a top elected education official.

“He’s misinformed and this is a disgusting comment and it’s so inaccurate and false,” Solomon-Simmons told Newsweek. “The massacre was all about the skin color of the Black people who were destroyed. The [white mob] call Greenwood N-word town. They said they wanted to run the Blacks out of Tulsa.”

For those of you who do not know, the Tulsa massacre was a horrific act of racial terrorism in 1921 that destroyed the Greenwood District of Tulsa, a nationally-renowned prosperous community nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” Dick Rowland, a shoe shiner and dapper dresser in his late teens, was arrested on trumped-up charges for allegedly assaulting a white elevator operator, Sarah Page.

Encouraged and manipulated by racially-motivated media agitation and other forms of racial hostility, white residents of Tulsa engaged in two consecutive days of violent and sadistic carnage, eventually burning and destroying the Greenwood District. The national guard had to be called in. More than 300 people were killed. The massacre is considered one of the worst incidents of racially motivated violence in U.S. history.

Rather than acknowledging he made a mistake, Walters, who was elected by campaigning on a platform of ordering teachers to be given “patriotic education,” initially doubled-down and went on the defensive. “It doesn’t matter how much the radical left attacks me,” Walters said during the public forum. “It doesn’t matter how much the teacher’s union spends against me. I will never stop speaking the truth.”

Realizing he had stepped in it, he made an attempt to clarify his comments.

“The Tulsa Race Massacre was a terrible, evil event perpetrated by folks that chose to act in a way that was evil and racist,” Walters told the local Fox affiliate.  “I said (at the event) it was evil, all of our kids need to know it and they need to judge the action of those people.”

The truth is a number of whites are in denial about racism. A greater percentage are even more dismissive about the potential negative economic, psychological, and emotional impact that racism can have on the lives of Black and brown people.

A history of violence and discrimination has deeply affected America’s Black population. The results still linger with us today, and those emotional scars are ripped open when callous and careless and comments like those made by Walters and others of his misguided mindset.

Denying such hard truths about various racial tragedies in our nation’s history does nothing to bring us any closer to any sort of racial reconciliation. Acknowledging our racial past and making a committed effort to confront such tragedy is the only viable solution to addressing such an undeniable fact.

Copyright 2023 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.