Oklahoma made headlines again and, as you might expect, not for good reasons. A group of SAE fraternity members from the University of Oklahoma were secretly filmed singing a racist chant, proclaiming they would hang an African-American person from a tree before letting them be a member of the fraternity. Following behind the Michael Brown shooting and the subsequent rise of racial tensions in Ferguson, MO, the video undoubtedly lead to nationwide outrage. Once again, the issue of race incited national discussion. Many voices have chimed in: from news reports, newspaper articles, personal blogs, Twitterings, and Facebook fights. A unified front took form, clearly dividing the line between the good and the bigots. The fraternity was shut down. Fraternity members were expelled. And once again all was well in the kingdom.
But is the right issue being discussed in lieu of these events? Or have we merely slapped duct tape on a leak when what we really need is a new pipe. Was the fraternities’ act horribly racist? Yes. Did they deserve to be shut down? Absolutely. But racism is only a cog in the wheel of a broken system. I’m tired of it. I used to play it off as “Oklahoma being Oklahoma,” but it’s getting increasingly difficult to dismiss. I’m no longer mad at the Sooner State, my home, and a place I’ve spent the majority of my life. I’m sad. Sad to see the clear lack of any social progress for future generations. This recent event has made that evidently clear. If progress is to be made we must start by admitting there’s a problem. And there’s a huge fucking problem.
Oklahoma currently ranks 48th in education. On top of that, the state is currently attempting to pass a bill that would discontinue the teaching of AP US History in high schools across the state, arguing it focuses too much on “what is bad about America.” The United States has done amazing things, it has also done atrocious things, and both are equally important to learn. If we don’t allow classes to teach the shortcomings of America, we choke off all possibility of open debate and discussion. You can’t learn from a singular point of view. Without multiple perspectives, kids wouldn’t be taught to think about solutions to the problems our country faces. There would be no room to challenge, to question right from wrong. A diversity of perspectives garners a wider spread of understanding, allowing people from all walks of life to step into another’s shoes. We need the teaching of unbiased, quality education to keep the seeds of prejudice from growing.
Abridging public education hinders social equality and can be especially detrimental when met with extreme religious conservatism. Religion, in the right hands, can be a good thing, providing a guideline for leading a moral life. However, religion, much like an opinion, is subjective, not absolute. Members of the same religious affiliation can have varying interpretations of its teachings based on different life experiences. That is why a seventy-year-old white male will interpret the bible differently from a twenty-five-year-old African-American woman. By indoctrinating religious beliefs into law, we establish subjective notions as truth. Kids living in a society with laws barring gay marriage, or laws allowing private and government businesses to decline service based on religious beliefs, grow up with a skewed view. It teaches the same lesson White kids were taught pre-Civil Rights Movement; they are superior. Many grow up inherently believing they are entitled to certain privileges that others aren’t or shouldn’t be. People may not ever directly tell them they do, but actions carry a heavy weight. That’s why the increasingly blurred line between separation of church and state is dangerous. Governmental laws should implement equality for all, and enhance betterment for each individual. By implementing laws based on religious beliefs we are allowing and, whether we agree or not, accepting open discrimination. Without stronger efforts to rid the artifacts of previous legislation that discriminate based on race, gender, or sexual orientation, we ultimately keep deeply rooted prejudice present.
Does this mean all Oklahomans are uneducated bigots? No, of course not. The problem is we don’t hold the true perpetrators accountable. Frat boys who shout racist chants aren’t the real enemy. These boys are a product of the system, the puppets strung along by its master. Expelling a few students from the University doesn’t solve the problem. Solving the problem means stopping it at the source and, in this case, you need not look further than those who hold political office. These are the people who propose and enact law. These are the people who would rather focus on narrowing our beliefs than broadening them. These are the people who are frightened of an informed electorate for fear of exposing their true colors. Sally Kern is a Republican from Oklahoma who currently sits in the House of Representatives. She recently introduced a bill that would force those who believe in same-sex relationships to undergo conversion therapy. She also made claims that the “homosexual agenda” was destroying the nation and posed a bigger threat than terrorism. Sally Kern thinks people who have homosexual beliefs are a bigger threat to the country than those who would openly kill thousands. She ran unopposed in 2014.
So when I say the University of Oklahoma’s racism problem isn’t about race, I mean it isn’t solely about race. Continued racism, sexism, and prejudice stem from an overall systemic problem; a state run by people who think they are entitled, armed with their religious affiliation as proof, and fueled by the support of an equally ignorant electorate. By sustaining a failing educational system and ramping up a religious agenda, Oklahoma keeps the true bigots in power. We fail as a society if we idly stand by and let it continue. Too often I hear complaints about the actions of people like Sally Kern. Too often these complaints are followed by inaction. Keep talking. An open and honest discussion is vital, but it mustn’t stop there. After you’ve talked, do. As Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” It starts with being a better-informed electorate (myself included). Knowledge is something to strive for, not to belittle. Take the time and learn about who is running our country. Don’t stop at just the President; know your state representatives, too. Know their beliefs and how those beliefs affect their policies. If they support open intolerance, challenge them, don’t let them run unopposed like Sally Kern. Call their offices and file complaints. But most importantly, use your precious right to vote. Only 36.4% of the eligible voters actually voted in the 2014 midterms and Oklahoma had the 7th lowest voter turnout of all fifty states, coming in at just 29.8%. The greatest voice we have over these politicians is our ability to vote. If you don’t vote, don’t complain. It takes action to challenge and change long-held ideologies. It isn’t a battle won overnight, but with time, patience, and persistence we can pave the way for a better society.