Oklahoma’s MAGA superintendent of public schools recently evoked a common right-wing extremist myth in deflecting from the role that racial hatred played in the Tulsa Race Massacre in order to defend the state’s teaching curriculum that banned “critical race theory,” a major boogeyman in right-wing media.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was sparked by a mob of white residents who descended upon the segregated Greenwood neighborhood after attempting to lynch a Black teenager accused of assaulting a young white woman. The resulting attack left as many as 300 Black Tulsans dead, hundreds more wounded, and thousands homeless after the mob burned over 35 blocks of the neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.” In the days that followed, approximately 6,000 Black residents were rounded up in internment camps, where the National Guard forced them “to clean up the destruction caused by the white rioters.”
Nearly 100 years after the massacre, the Oklahoma State Legislature voted in 2020 to require that public high schools teach the subject. However, the state’s 2021 ban on CRT left questions as to how the massacre should be taught.
At a July 6 forum hosted by the Cleveland County Republicans, Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters responded to a question about how Oklahoma’s ban on teaching “critical race theory” would impact discussion of the massacre. An academic theory that explores how racism is structurally embedded in U.S. institutions, so-called CRT has been co-opted by conservatives in recent years as an epithet to attack any discussion of systemic racism and racial justice efforts — particularly in public education.
In his answer about the massacre, Walters said, “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 the skin color determined that.” (Walters later claimed that he was misquoted, asserting that “the media is twisting two separate answers … in an attempt to create a fake controversy” and adding that “the events on that day were racist, evil, and it is inexcusable.”)
Walters has previously championed policies aimed at banning critical race theory from Oklahoma public schools, claiming that it is a “dangerous and racist philosophy.” He’s also frequently commented on the supposed “woke indoctrination” in schools through CRT and other academic boogeymen of the right.
Walters has made a number of other comments while serving as superintendent that mimic extreme right-wing talking points. During a May 1 legislative hearing, Walters referred to teachers unions — a longtime target of right-wing media smears — as “terrorist organizations,” and he repeated the bogus hoax that students identifying as cats were being allowed to use litter boxes in schools during a November 1, 2022, campaign event.
Walters’ recent public comments on the Tulsa Race Massacre mirror a yearslong effort by right-wing extremists to similarly deny the role of racial hatred in spurring the attack in an attempt to play both sides and reframe the violence as being instigated by Black Tulsans.
Far-right message boards and media figures have also denied the role race played in the massacre
- Former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke blamed the violence on Black Tulsans who sought to “raise hell.” He also justified the riot as a response to crime, stating “They act like it was just whites going out to kill Blacks, but what happened was — and they don’t even talk about this, there’s no discussion about this. You know a lot of white responses to African Americans is not … to oppress or harm Black people, it’s because even back then — it’s worse now than it was then — but even back then, crime was exponentially, exponentially greater by Blacks against white people in rape, robbery, assault, and murder.” [DavidDuke.com podcast, 6/2/21]
- The white nationalist website VDare called the fact that the massacre was racially motivated a “myth.” The article condemning congressional Republicans for supporting “the Tulsa myth” went on to cast doubt on “the lies and exaggerations surrounding this event, such as the claims that 300 died in the ‘massacre.’” VDare claimed that the anniversary of the massacre was “a day meant to inspire anti-white racism” that also “increases support for reparations and anti-white violence.” [VDare, 6/3/21]
- Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes stated in a Telegram message, “The Tulsa ‘massacre’ was a race riot started by angry black men defending a rapist. The media turned it into a story of racist whites and ethnic cleansing.” [Telegram, 6/2/22]
- McInnes went on a racist diatribe against teaching American history on Alex Jones’ Infowars show, stating, “We did not burn down Black Wall Street, your teacher is lying.” “There was a race riot that started after a justified arrest,” McInnes continued. “Blacks started shooting, whites started shooting. A massive riot broke out and they brought in the National Guard to try to stop it. Yes, buildings were burned; that’s because there were snipers on the roof. You explain that Emmett Till was guilty. You explain that we didn’t take the land from the Indians. … You’ve got to tell them that their teachers were lying." [Infowars, The Alex Jones Show, 6/16/23]
- On One America News, right-wing radio host Jesse Lee Peterson claimed that the reality of the Tulsa massacre was “not as dramatized as the race hustlers are making it out to be.” He added that “Black people are not telling the truth about what happened in Tulsa. I don't know the exact story, but it wasn't a massacre. In the good old days, it was a riot, and today it was a riot. But they want reparations, and if white folks don't start standing up, we're going to have in America what is happening in South Africa.” [OAN, The Tipping Point, 6/2/21]
- On far-right message boards such as 4Chan and TheDonald.win, users suggested that the massacre was a hoax manufactured by media outlets to reframe a century-old “race riot” as an anti-white myth. [4chan, 6/1/22, 5/21/21; TheDonald.win, 5/31/21]