Monday, March 14, 2011
I am an African American woman. My mother was an African American woman, as was her mother and grandmother before her. One day my granddaughters will be African American women. Like my mother and my grandmothers, my hope is that it will not be necessary for my granddaughters to navigate around and over the barriers that I have encountered in my 59 years—the sexism, the racism, the contempt, the disrespect, the bias. I too have a dream that one day my grandchildren will be judged solely on their abilities and character--not by the color of their skin.
Unfortunately ultra conservative members of the Oklahoma Legislature and their cronies (i.e., the American Civil Rights Institute) have a different dream. Their self-serving greed is the cornerstone of a plan to rollback almost 50 years of advancements for women and people of color. Although it sounds quite innocuous, Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 15 opens the door to many of the blatant evils of the past. To add insult to injury the bill’s author, Senator Rob Johnson, does not lament about “reverse discrimination” like many of his forerunners. Instead, in an attempt to hoodwink respectable Oklahomans into supporting the proposed insidious referendum; Senator Johnson “fondly” quotes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!
Last week Senate Republicans adopted SJR 15 and forwarded the bill to the House. I am pleased that the 15 Democrats in the chamber that day voted against the dreadful proposal. If the legislative referendum passes the House, Oklahoma citizens will vote to “prohibit discrimination based on race or sex”—which at face value sounds quite appealing. However, the intent of the proposed state question is to limit State of Oklahoma contracting opportunities for minority and women business owners. If the proposal becomes law, state governmental agencies will no longer be required to hire women and people of color. Looking through Senator Johnson’s colorblind (I see no color) glasses, minority and female students wishing to enroll in certain fields of study at our major universities may not stand a chance. No doubt, a sizable number of women and minority owned businesses will be adversely affected. Since the passage of California’s similar legislation--Proposition 209--two-thirds of minority and women owned businesses have failed!
As an African American there are two phrases that make the hair at the nape of my neck stand on edge —“I don’t see color” and “Funny, you don’t sound black.” If you don’t see color, you don’t see me. If I don’t sound black, it’s because sounding black is part of your bias—not mine. If it upsets you or you don’t think that it is fair that women and people of color receive between two and 5% of state contracting opportunities, your bias is blatantly showing. Perhaps I am also biased; but when I think of all the cruelty and indifference that women and minorities have endured for centuries and are slowly overcoming, a hand-up seems mighty reasonable!
The real tragedy of SJR 15 is that like so many of the bills proposed by the Oklahoma Legislature, its primary goal is to infuse more fear and loathing in the hearts and minds of Oklahoma citizens. In 2010 our Legislature loaded up the ballot with English only, Sharia Law, Voter ID, and negating the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 for Oklahomans. An unassuming person might deduce that there would be nothing left for the 2012 ballot. On the contrary, we can expect more hate-baiting and fear-breeding legislation, carefully crafted innuendos, and partisan doublespeak between now and the November 2012 elections. Senator Ron Johnson and his cronies may even start quoting President John F. Kennedy and the wording of Executive Order 10925 or other iconic civil rights advocates to bamboozle and befuddle. After all, its one of the oldest tricks in the political grab bag.
It is up to reasonable Oklahomans—black, brown, white, yellow, male, female, young, and old—to stand up, stand together, and lift our voices loud and long enough to capture the attention of the Oklahoma legislators who are determined to permeate our State Constitution with insensitive and egregious language one state question at a time. Enough is enough. Call your legislators today and let them know that you are opposed to SJR 15 and any other attempts to advance similar legislation. Contact your ministers and other religious leaders. Contact the leadership of your Masonic and fraternal organizations. This is an issue affecting all of us; it is not a political campaign. This is a public policy issue and there is no restriction on charitable and religious organizations or other 501(c)3 organizations standing up for what is right and speaking out against this travesty.
It is sad and telling that those who grumble the loudest about affirmative action have launched this attack on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s attempt to end racial disparities. In her autobiography (Crusade for Justice, 1928) civil rights advocate Ida B. Wells-Barnett begins the final chapter with these words, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." She cautions that although the United States has some "wonderful institutions" to protect our liberty, we have grown complacent and need to be "alert as the watchman on the wall." There is no disputing, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
"We, the people." It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document [the Preamble to the US Constitution] was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787 I was not included in that "We, the people." I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in "We, the people."
Congresswoman Barbara C. Jordan (D-TX)
Statement made before the House Committee on the Judiciary, July 25, 1974
Today is my Grandmother Fannie’s birthday! If she had not surrendered to “being older than dirt” in the summer of 2001, she would be 103 years old. She was born in southeastern Oklahoma on March 14, 1908—four months following Oklahoma’s statehood; three months after the passage of Oklahoma’s first law sanctioning discrimination (Senate Bill One). Our love of all things Oklahoma was instilled in us—me, my siblings, and my cousins—by our Grandmother. The same can be said of our love for history, poetry, family, and our vigilance.
Long before we were born, Grandmother was a beautician—a hairdresser, an artist of beauty. I really don’t think she liked being a hairdresser, but she didn’t like cleaning other people’s toilets either. There weren’t many opportunities for young women back then. There were even less for “Negro” women. Growing up and watching Grandmother wander around her kitchen like it was some foreign land, I would chuckle at the thought of her being anybody’s maid. Actually, I pity the genteel woman who hired Fannie Lewis to keep their house. Some folks just aren’t cut out for some types of work.
They say that there is a silver lining in every cloud; you just have to look for it. The silver lining for the cloud we know as World War II would be the employment opportunities that opened up for women and African Americans. For Oklahoma that silver lining can be further defined as Tinker Field Air Force Base. In 1940 Oklahoma City business and political leaders learned that the War Department was planning to locate a supply depot in the central part of the country. They began work immediately—acquiring land, garnering public support, and no doubt using a little political savvy and influence to ensure that the facility would be located in Oklahoma City.
The first official announcement that the Air Force would build a depot at Oklahoma City came on April 8, 1941. On June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802. The order banned discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities in the government and defense industries. The order resulted in part from pressure placed on Roosevelt by the African American labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph. Talk about timing! President Roosevelt’s order was the first significant presidential action on behalf of African American civil rights since Reconstruction.
Although the provisions of 8802 were theoretically sound, we all know that they were not fully put into practice. But Executive Order 8802 was most definitely a wedge—a foot in the door; an affirmative action—that hundreds of Oklahoma African Americans embraced. One of those fortunate folks was my grandmother, Fannie Lewis Burleigh (nee, Smith). Unfortunately many of the African Americans and women hired were relegated to janitorial and helper positions that were far beneath their qualifications and education—but the security and stability of government service, their hopes for a better day, and their desire to do their part for the war effort made these injustices endurable.
Vigilance; “the price of liberty”, “the price of freedom.” Each year at Thanksgiving, I pull out Grandmother’s copy of the 1942 memorial book for Tinker Field’s Oklahoma City Air Service Command – Maintenance Division. I share this with my young relatives—least they forget “from whence we came”, least they forget that “life has not been a crystal stair”, least they forget about the “stony road that has been trod.” I am vigilant because I remember life before Affirmative Action, the EEOC, and the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission. I remember the 6-year-old freckled faced girl who chastised me for using too much soap, because she thought I had washed the palms of my hands white. I remember the merchants in my hometown that opened their doors to their African American patrons after regular hours so as not to offend their Caucasian patrons. I remember every person who recoiled in fear that the black would rub off.
So; to illustrate to my grandchildren and cousins why I am passionate about history and feel that I have a responsibility to be forever vigilant, I pull out the Tinker yearbook. Personnel photos of the military personnel are shown first, followed by the civilian workforce who are shown by employment sections and then divided further—white employees in alphabetical order, followed by African American employees in alphabetical order. Are the whites separated from the blacks, because someone feared that the black would rub off—even in a photo? No, they are separate to indicate subservience. They are separated to imply, “you may be here, but you will never BE HERE.” “You may have your foot in the door, but you better check yourself.”
I would be lying if I said that I can’t believe that in 2011 we still have attacks on affirmative action programs, perceived preferential treatment, and loathing of set asides for women the size of a peanut. There will always be those who have no concept of sharing, of compassion, of true equality. Grandmother Fannie called these folks small-minded evil doers. When I think of the slaveholders who felt that slavery was morally right, I think of small-minded evil doers.
My grandmother’s words feel my consciousness, when I hear others bemoaning equal opportunity, affirmative action, and set asides—especially women, because it means that they have forgotten from whence we came. It means that they have drunk the Kool-Aid and stumbled down the rabbit hole. In some cases, it means that they have sold out for personal gain or glory and it saddens me. It will be very interesting to hear Governor Mary Fallin’s thoughts on SJR 15 and the proposed state question that Oklahoma Republican legislators have crafted for the November 2012 ballot.
Oklahoma SJR 15 is Oklahoma’s 21st Century version of Senate Bill One. Don’t take my word for it, read the bill that is now before the House. When I think of Senator Rob Johnson’s bill, the first word that comes to mind is onerous. At First Reading before the Oklahoma Senate, SJR 15 was introduced as a proposed constitutional amendment concerning judicial appointments. It was amended by substitute in the Judiciary Committee on 2/28/2011; the substitute language prohibits certain preferential treatment (or as they say, "It will not allow special treatment or discrimination based on race or sex"). If you intentions were good, WHY THE TRICKERY?
Vigilance! SJR 15 is screaming loud and clear. Oklahoma’s Republican legislators are screaming loud and clear, “You better check yourself—who do you think you are?” Vigilance. It’s time for the decent folk of Oklahoma to start screaming—and let’s be LOUD & CLEAR! You taught me well, Grandmother! Happy Birthday!