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Once again, Oklahoma refuses to form Commission on Race and Equality

by Ezekiel J. Walker
Once again, Oklahoma refuses to form Commission on Race and Equality
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Oklahoma State Sen. George Young (D-Oklahoma City) has proposed legislation aimed at addressing racial disparities multiple times. The most recent attempt again failed to receive votes for a committee hearing this session.

According to Oklahoma Watch, “Senate Bill1204 proposes creating a 30-member Oklahoma Commission on Race and Equality. The governor and majority leaders of the Senate and House would each appoint seven members. The Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus would appoint nine.”

Accountability escapes Oklahoma and its lawmakers.

The commission would have met at least six times annually to allow Oklahomans to raise issues, complaints, and proposals relating to racial bias and discrimination. Its duties would include monitoring legislation for potentially discriminatory aspects.

Dawn Stover leads the Alliance of Tribal Coalitions to End Violence, an organization working to increase awareness and response to violence against Native women. “The idea that we wouldn’t have a race and equality commission for the state of Oklahoma is basically saying, to certain subsets of our citizens, ‘you don’t matter,” Stover said.

Like most GOP states, the Republican super-majority in the legislature last year passed laws limiting instruction about race and gender in public schools and increased penalties for demonstrators who block public roadways.

In March, Oklahoma became the 13th state to ban transgender athletes from playing on female sports teams when Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law.

Ignoring the problem will only ensure it grows. Republican Oklahomans know that.

Damion Shade is the justice and economic mobility project manager for Oklahoma Policy Institute. He worked with Senator Young to provide data and research supporting the need for a race and equality commission. They discovered that as of June 2020, the incarceration rate for Black Oklahomans was five times that of White Oklahomans.

“It would be almost impossible to truly understand Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis without looking through the prism of race,” Shade said. “Oklahoma’s incarceration disparities with the rest of the United States are almost entirely accounted for by racial disparities.”

Race and poverty are historically and presently intertwined.

One in five Oklahoma children lives in households with an income of $25,926 or less for a family of two adults and two children, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Black children are about six times more likely to live in poverty.

According to Oklahoma Watch, since 2000, the sooner state has had a law banning law enforcement from racial profiling. The number of officers punished for the crime is virtually zero in a state that from 1980-2019 saw some of the highest levels of violence against non-Hispanic Black people by police officers when compared to states like Nevada, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, which also had high rates.

“One of our big points with the data and why it’s so important to do this type of really detailed analysis is in the situation of (court) fines and fees, no police officer would ever need to have a personal animus against a Black person to disproportionately target them for arrest, a stop or search. They are simply going where the failure to pay warrants are.”

Freedom comes at a price Oklahoma communities cannot afford.

Shade points to an Open Justice Oklahoma examination focusing on the north Tulsa ZIP code of 74115, where residents had a combined court debt of more than $11 million. Nearly 20% of residents had failure-to-pay warrants. The state’s uncollected court debt from 2012-18 totals more than $630 million.

“If the court fines and fees are being disproportionately assessed to the poorest community which — because of racial wealth gaps in large urban centers — happen to be the black and brown communities, that’s where the cops are naturally going to go,” Shade said.

A deep dive into poverty would reveal more answers.

Shade continued, “When so many of the poverty metrics and other statistics look roughly analogous, what are those things that are creating disparities?”

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