Attacks on LGBTQ+ kids and on teachers as “groomers” and “indoctrinators” have mostly replaced right-wing hysteria about critical race theory, but Oklahoma state schools superintendent Ryan Walters was willing to show off his circa 2021 “I don’t know what CRT is but that won’t stop me from talking about it” chops on Thursday night.
Walters took questions at the Norman Central Library, and although the event was sponsored by a county Republican Party, he got some tough ones. Like, “Why are you banning books and coming to speak at a library?” Someone even brought a laugh track. But a question about the Tulsa Race Massacre really laid bare the willful ignorance and vacuousness of how Republicans lob accusations of CRT to deflect from talking seriously about U.S. history.
The questioner was not letting Walters off the hook on this one, repeatedly asking, “How does the Tulsa Race Massacre not fall under your definition of CRT?”
Here’s how that went:
Walters: I would never tell a kid that because of your ra—because of your color of your skin or your gender or anything like that you are less of a person or are inherently racist. 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 a race defines a person, I reject that. So I would say, you be judgmental of the issue, of the action, of the content of the character of the individual, absolutely. But let’s not tie it to the skin color and say that the skin color determined that.
Audience member: One more followup: How does the Tulsa Race Massacre not fall under 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 it not fall under CRT?
Walters: I’ve answered your question, I do appreciate, you were very respectful ...
Audience member: The hundred years of silence was about race. How does that not qualify for CRT?
As the audience member said, the Tulsa Race Massacre was a race massacre. And Walters’ response simply makes no 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 question of skin color and maybe, maybe of individual motives in which “this was right, this was wrong, they did this for this reason.” He’s saying it’s permissible, in Oklahoma schools, to say that mass killing and destruction of property is morally wrong, but that any discussion of the racial motivations for killing and destroying property is immediately suspect.
The way that Walters refused to answer the real question, or to even name the Tulsa Race Massacre, is significant. He’s showing the official approach to race in Oklahoma schools: Evade. Dodge. Duck. And when pressed, 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 residents of Tulsa, with good reason to fear that a Black teenager was about to be lynched, moved to protect him from a growing mob. This became the pretext for the lynch mob that had already gathered to brutalize not just one young man but an entire community. No one even knows exactly how many people were killed or injured. A prosperous community was destroyed. And everything about it was about race, starting with the fact that a crowd of hundreds of white people gathered to lynch one teenager for having, as best anyone could determine after the fact, possibly grabbed the arm of another (white, female) teenager. There was a context for this, a context of racial violence intended to keep Black people oppressed.
It’s not that “the skin color determined that” in some kind of universal, timeless way, but that race, as socially constructed in that place and time, was the key force shaping those events and that if you don’t talk about that, you aren’t really teaching the history of what happened. And, a critical race theorist might add, race is a key force shaping U.S. history and law and the economy much more broadly than just by causing a specific race massacre. But nothing in critical race theory as it exists outside of the Republican imagination is about anything being inherent to skin color.
Critical race theory is an intellectual movement that holds, broadly speaking (and with many strains of thought within it), that, as Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explain in “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” racism is “the usual way 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 shifting needs such as the labor market”; that “no person has a single, easily stated, 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 not a clue what it means. What he has is the Republican definition: “CRT is acknowledging the existence of race or racism in a way that might make the most fragile white person uncomfortable.” And apparently what that means is that the top education official in Oklahoma cannot respond to a question about the Tulsa Race Massacre by talking about the Tulsa Race Massacre.