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As he runs for State Superintendent, Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters has made many ahistorical statements in an attempt to rile up his right-wing base of supporters. One of his most recent tweets, however, crosses a line that ignores its damaging impact on the Black students he seeks to represent.
On the evening of Friday, August 19, with a few days left before the Tuesday election for State Superintendent, Ryan Walters posted a video on Twitter in which he compared teachers’ unions to enslavement.
“The unions have never represented Oklahoma values. @GovStitt and I will always fight against mandatory enslavement by them. Teachers unions have been the doorway into liberalizing and indoctrinating our classrooms.”
The unions have never represented Oklahoma values. @GovStitt and I will always fight against mandatory enslavement by them. Teachers unions have been the doorway into liberalizing and indoctrinating our classrooms. pic.twitter.com/BdaVUBZo5D
— Secretary Ryan Walters (@sec_walters) August 19, 2022
Comparing the choice of joining teachers’ unions to forced labor under threat of death is not only ahistorical hyperbole, it’s an incredibly callous insult to the not too distant centuries-long struggle the ancestors of Black Americans endured.
Not only does Ryan Walters’ statement make Black students, teachers and Oklahomans in general feel as if he’s downplaying America’s original sin, but it also appears to violate the same backwards law his office champions, HB 1775, which bans any teaching that students should feel uncomfortable or guilty due to their race.
It also reminds me of the time when my own Oklahoma High School AP U.S. History teacher in Lawton, Ms. Belter, told our class that “slavery wasn’t that bad” because her not-to-distant Native American ancestors enslaved Black people and “treated them well.”
Any statements that downplay some of humanity’s most abhorrent events and practices has no place coming out of the mouth of an elected official, let alone one who seeks to represent public education at the state level.
Ryan Walters will say anything for votes
To be sure, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that out of the tens of thousands of Oklahoma teachers, at least some of them may disagree with the state’s teachers’ union. Despite the fact that the Oklahoma Education Association was instrumental in gaining teacher pay raises in a historic victory in 2018, no organization local or national is free from criticism.
Yet, considering the state’s Right to Work law, Oklahoma teachers have always had the ability to choose whether to join a union. Comparing that choice to the forced removal of millions of Africans from their homeland into chattel slavery, the killings and beatings of those who tried to run away or revolt, the selling of babies from the arms of their mothers, and the raping of Black women by white slave masters (the story of my ancestors) is wrong.
As Secretary of Education and as a former social studies teacher, Ryan Walters should know better. The fact that he chose to make that blatantly inaccurate and morally repugnant statement anyway reveals the character of a man who is unqualified to represent Oklahoma’s students, especially Black students.
Walters could’ve spent his candidacy focusing on his plans to improve Oklahoma’s dismal state rankings of 49th in education or his plans to address the fact that a majority of fourth-grade students in the state can’t read at a fourth grade level.
Read this carefully. THE MAJORITY OF 4th GRADERS IN THIS STATE CAN’T READ AT THE 4th GRADE LEVEL.
Oklahoma is failing students, families and communities.
What does this say about our future?!? pic.twitter.com/NvkPBnFfco
— Rep. Denise Brewer (D) (@Brewer4OK) August 19, 2022
Instead, he’s chosen nothing but vitriol and contempt for public education, proving unapologetic in his desire for political votes.
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election, an election in which all Oklahomans should participate, Ryan Walters owes Black students across the state an apology for the harm his words have caused.