OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – A United States senator from Oklahoma who has worked to bring light to one of the state’s darkest days in history is encouraging Americans to work together to address race relations in the country.
Sen. James Lankford is a member of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and has worked extensively to bring more attention to the victims and the aftermath of the riot.
Lankford was recently part of KFOR’s ‘United Voice’ town hall, where he spoke about the Tulsa Race Massacre and what lessons we can learn today.
Earlier this week, Sen. Lankford spoke on the Senate floor to encourage lawmakers to agree on ways to heal racial relations across the country.
“A week ago I did a television interview on race relations in America. They asked me to talk a little bit about what happened in Tulsa in 1921 when the worst race massacre happened in Tulsa in 1921. It was May 31 overnight into June 1. As I’m on television a week ago describing the events of how a group of white rioters had marched into Greenwood, what’s called Black Wall Street, and had killed up to 300 people there and had set Greenwood on fire, destroying homes and businesses. As I’m talking, and many people at home don’t know this, but everyone in this chamber does, as I’m talking I’m just talking to a camera lens. I can’t tell what’s on TV at the time. But as I’m talking there were pictures of a town in the United States currently on fire while I’m describing a race massacre 99 years ago that weekend.
We’ve come a long way on the issue of race in America, but we clearly have a very long way to go. We have four centuries of racial inequality stacked on top of each other. While we break through those things step by step, we have things that we can do. I’ve been on the phone for days with friends and people that I know from all over Oklahoma, all backgrounds to talk about race relationships and where do we go as a nation. Some people throw up their hands and say, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Many people have an idea, but everyone wants the situation to get better.
What’s interesting is the dialogue about protesters and rioters and police officers. And I share openly with them, I don’t judge protesters and rioters the same. Some people do. They throw them all into one group. I do not. There are people out standing in the streets just wanting to be heard, just wanting finally things in America to change, for America to fulfill her promise of equal justice under the law in every area in every community. They are peaceful, they are sometimes loud and brash, but they are frustrated and they want to be heard.
There’s another group that breaks through the middle at times of those protesters, smashing windows, stealing shoes and electronics from stores, spray-painting and destroying public property just from their own anger. I don’t treat protesters and rioters the same. And I encourage people not to treat all police officers the same. Are there some rioters mixed in with protesters? Yes. Are there some police officers that need to be confronted for their racial views? Yes. Is that all of them? By far, no.
Every person should be judged by their own character, every person. And when we as Americans lump any group together, and say, ‘they are like that,’ we have divided us even more.
Twenty years ago, my state made it illegal for police to stop someone just because of their race. You couldn’t pull someone over because of their race. Most police departments in Oklahoma don’t allow a choke hold. In fact, I spoke with officers in the Oklahoma City Police Department that had been there a very long time and they said they were never even trained to do that, told not to do that. So what’s happened in other areas and other places is not happening in my state the same way, but I still have friends of mine that are African American that still catch me and tell me the number of times they’ve been pulled over for ‘driving while black.’ In places and neighborhoods I’ve never been pulled over in. But they have multiple times. We still have a long way to go.
This legislative body can talk about it, we can share empathy, we can listen, but we’re also called to act. So I bring to this body just a few ideas. Some things we can do to be able to engage, things like greater transparency. How can we oppose just getting information out? Simple things that we’re not currently doing like gathering a federal database of use of lethal force by law enforcement that whatever police department and whatever place uses lethal force, they should be, all of that data should be collected and sent to a federal database so there can be a national tracking of where lethal force is used. What was the race of the police officer? What was the race of the person where the force was used? What was the situation? How was the investigation handled? What was the result of that investigation? Basic details.
City councils, city leaders, city managers should not be afraid to look at the data and ask hard questions. We should not be afraid to look at the data and be able to ask hard questions. Most every community has oversight boards that are citizen boards. Good. Are they empowered to actually engage? Are they involved in the hiring process? Are they involved in the oversight. Do they get a chance to be able to look over their shoulders to evaluate what happens? Do they know when there are reports on the same law enforcement officer over and over again? Are those advisory panels empowered?
Are there body cameras? And not just are there body cameras, are they on? Which has been our second challenge. Getting body cameras is just transparency, just the availability to have information so law enforcement can see and citizens can see what is happening. Law enforcement officers are in very, very difficult situations every day, and when they leave their house each morning, their family gives them a hug and hopes they come back that night because every day they face challenges. I have great compassion for those folks, but body cameras help everybody, provide clarity in what was going on. But they are not effective if they are not on. And we’ve had several situations lately where it seems conveniently body cameras were not on. That’s a problem. And that’s an area that we should address.
Mental health training is an area that has come up over and over again. Not just recently. It’s come up for a long time. This body, in the Senate and the House, and the President signed legislation to increase dramatically the funding for mental health around the country but states and local areas have got to be able to engage in this as well. Even in my own state, law enforcement is responsible for transporting an individual across the state to a treatment facility for mental health or for substance abuse. Well, my state really does need to determine a better, more compassionate way to transport someone with mental illness health better than the back seed seat of a police car. We need to have a better and a more compassionate way to do that.
And, every time that occurs, law enforcement is taken off the street for an entire day because they are transporting someone when someone else could have done that in a more compassionate, less obvious way than in the back of a police car. We’ve got to find a better way to do that. Every time one of our law enforcement folks transitions across the state, they lose their time that they could have used for training, for getting out of their car to meet neighbors, to hear the story, to earn trust, to heal relationships.
Every city across America of any size has boards and commissions. But those boards and commissions often have the same people that just shuffle around from the same board and commission. They get off one board, and they move to another board. And I find just by asking around many of those boards and commissions do not match the diversity of their community.
There are a group of wealthy leaders or activists that are there, but it doesn’t match the diversity. And the leadership of those boards and commissions certainly don’t rotate enough to be able to allow the leaders of the boards and commissions that the city uses to have diversity. We put out every year community development block grants, every year from this House and Senate. Why don’t we just add into the community development block grants that cities and communities can get access to these community development block grants to help improve their situation if they’re also improving access to individuals within the community having the opportunity to also lead in that community.
If your boards and commissions don’t reflect the diversity of the community, there’s a problem with that city and the way that they’re actually designing the leadership structure of how decisions are made with federal dollars. That’s not a hard way to raise up new leaders and actually get their voice heard at city hall and get their voice heard on how funds are actually done.
Big-city police departments oftentimes don’t share the same racial diversity of the city itself. Why don’t we allow some of the grant money that we have that we already dedicate to law enforcement to be given to recruiters so that they could recruit from the same diversity of their community and actually help pay the salary of people that are stepping in in the earliest days in the police academy and as their starting into the force? That way the diversity in our big-city police departments also matches the diversity of the community itself. And if they have a difficult time recruiting, we allow them to be able to use those funds for recruiters.
You see, I really do believe there are things that we can do that make a practical difference. But I also firmly believe that racism is not a legislative issue. It is a heart issue, and it is a family issue. And one of the big things that we can challenge as individuals, is with the bully pulpit that we have, pushing back on individuals and doing, quite frankly, whatever you can to be able to push this. What I started five years ago is asking people a simple question: has your family ever invited a family of another race into your home for dinner? Just a simple question.
I’ve been amazed at the number of people that I’ve talked to in my state of all races that when i asked them has your family every invited a family of another race for dinner, they responded back to me, I have friends of another race. To which I always smile at them and said, ‘that’s not what I asked.’ Not do you have friends of another race; has your family ever invited a family of another race to your home for a meal? Just for two families to be able to sit together and visit like neighbors would do. And I am astounded at the number of people that one of the thresholds of race is the threshold of their own home. Why would that barrier be there? And how do we break that barrier?
A friend of mine raised an interesting question to me this past weekend. He slipped in a couple years ago to the Museum of African American History as a law enforcement officer and found out that for Metro police here in the DC metro area, they go over to the Museum of African American History and they get a tour guided through that facility to help new police officers get an understanding of African American history from a law enforcement perspective and to be able to see what’s happened in law enforcement and relationships between law enforcement and African Americans over the centuries.
He joined into that tour, and his statement to me was, ‘I wish every police department could get that kind of training, could get to that museum and could get that kind of context.’ My statement back to him was, ‘we do that from the Holocaust Museum.’ The Holocaust Museum does tours and is currently designing a curriculum that we can then train trainers that curriculum and work on anti-Semitism across the country. That body helped get that done. Why don’t we do that with the Museum of African American History in law enforcement? Challenge them to take the program they already have, turn it into a curriculum, train the trainers and then to be able to get that out across the entire country and to multiply that out. Why couldn’t we do that?
Why couldn’t police week every year, when police week occurs, to have a large contingency of law enforcement go through the Museum of African American History and to be able to get that training there and then to be able to take that training back home? Why couldn’t that happen? It could. If this body willing to step up and to do some pragmatic things to be able to engage on actually finding practical ways to continue the work that our nation is doing.
See, we’re not at the beginning on race. We’re four centuries into this conversation. What I remind everyone is, we’re actually trying. There are many places of the world that they’re not working on race relations at all in their country. If you’re not the dominant race, you are still excluded from the courts, from education, from access. We as a country are trying. But for those that think we’re done, you’re wrong. We’re not done with the journey.
I love pointing out to people, watch the beginning of the Olympics when all the countries march in. Almost every delegation under every flag, everyone marching under that flag looks alike—until the United States marches in and you see this great diversity of our athletes. And it reminds us again, we’re trying.
The past 10 days should also remind us, we’re not done. So let’s continue doing the heart work that needs to be done with our own families. Let’s continue to do the legislative work that needs to be done to make progress. But let’s keep going until it’s done. My friend said to me last weekend, ‘our founding documents are great founding documents. We’ve just never actually fully lived them out for everybody.’ But I can’t wait for us to continue to work in this body towards becoming a more perfect union.“