Culture and the Family
Ray Carter | April 7, 2022
Oklahoma government called racist at forum
Speakers at a recent program on racial issues in Oklahoma accused state government leaders of being racist and transphobic, appeared to endorse media censorship, and suggested some racial groups choose to actively avoid police.
Those comments were offered during a panel discussion on “advocacy” during the March session of Advancing Oklahoma, which is described as “a lengthy conversation about race and race relations in Oklahoma.”
The presenting sponsor for Advancing Oklahoma is Paycom, joined by a dozen other foundations and state businesses who serve as lower-tier sponsors. The program is offered to the members of Leadership Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Academy, Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits, Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
One panelist at the March session, Sarah Gray, director of movement building and organizing at IllumiNative, declared that a July 2021 forum hosted by Gov. Kevin Stitt that included district attorneys from eastern Oklahoma was a “hate panel” that furthered the goals of a “racist government.”
The 2021 forum focused on the repercussions of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which held that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation was never formally disestablished for purposes of the federal Major Crimes Act.
As a result, whenever a crime involves a mix of Indian and non-Indian criminals and victims on reservation land, neither state nor tribal officials can prosecute most of those crimes. Instead, those crimes are handled by federal law enforcement officials.
The ruling has since been expanded to include the reservations of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, and Quapaw, meaning the restrictions on law-enforcement authority now cover nearly half of Oklahoma.
State authorities have reported that the federal government has declined to prosecute around 90 percent of McGirt crimes and only pursues the most serious offenses, such as rape or murder, meaning other victims never receive justice.
Tribal leaders were invited to participate in the July 2021 event but chose not to do so.
In addition to attacking the governor and law-enforcement officials who participated in the July 2021 forum, Gray also called for an undefined “check” on media coverage of criminal cases impacted by McGirt.
“In the media, we have false advocacy,” Gray said. “You look at Lori Fullbright, who goes on Channel 6 or Channel 9, if she ever gets down there in Oklahoma City, and she’s a huge advocate, she says, for victims and for law enforcement. But there is no accurate framing of her coverage around McGirt where she is accurately framing the situation. She is saying, ‘Look at this! These murderers, these rapists, they’re being released to the streets. The wild, Indian savages are coming for you.’”
Gray dismissed concerns about McGirt cases, saying many criminals released by the state are being retried by the federal government, and suggested Fullbright and similar reporters be curtailed in some fashion.
“She is not being checked, and that is harmful,” Gray said. “And it trickles down because so many people trust these news stations.”
Fullbright, a news anchor and crime reporter for Tulsa CBS-affiliate KOTV, said Gray’s description of her reporting is “not accurate at all” and an “uneducated and inaccurate statement.”
“I have never in my life called anyone a savage or said savages are running free… that is absurd and insulting beyond belief,” Fullbright said. “I have reported on criminal matters that are public record and have never expressed any opinion about any story I have ever covered, whether it’s a McGirt case or any other crime case.”
Fullbright noted the McGirt cases she has covered include Kimberly Graham, who killed five people during a DUI crash. Graham was released due to the McGirt ruling. Similarly, Leroy Jemol Smith, who was charged in state court with five rapes in Muskogee, was released from state custody due to McGirt. In both instances, no federal prosecution occurred because the federal statute of limitations had expired.
“Those cases are a fact,” Fullbright said.
She noted her reporting has also highlighted McGirt cases where individuals were retried by federal prosecutors, and in some instances received harsher sentences than what had been imposed in state courts.
“Clearly, a person can be a huge proponent of tribal sovereignty and still understand this Supreme Court decision has had some unintended consequences regarding some crime victims,” Fullbright said. “Many very proud tribal members who are victims and many proud tribal members of law enforcement have said that very thing, and we have made a huge effort to contact the tribal courts about many of these cases, and we have aired statements since (sent) to us by the tribes, each time they are available.”
During the Advancing Oklahoma session, Gray conceded that when she recently reported a crime, the responding officer warned that because of her Cherokee citizenship and the repercussions of the McGirt ruling, state and local officials could be limited in their response. Gray said she told the officer he was wrong.
Another panelist featured at the March session of Advancing Oklahoma, Linda Allegro Marenco, executive director of El Centro, said her group’s decision on where to locate a community center in Oklahoma City was complicated by the migrant population her group serves.
“We needed a real, physical space, a community center where we could engage in community organizing,” Marenco said. “And so, when we made that decision, we knew we didn’t want it to be downtown, which is completely inaccessible, mostly for our Latinx community and other communities that are actually afraid to go downtown because that’s where the sheriff’s office is and the jail.”
The term “Latinx” is controversial among minority communities. A national poll conducted in November 2021 by Bendixen & Amandi International, a Democratic firm, found that only 2 percent of Hispanic voters chose the term ‘LatinX’ to describe their ethnic background. Instead, 68 percent preferred “Hispanic” and 21 percent chose “Latina/Latino.” The poll also found that 40 percent of Hispanic voters said use of the term “LatinX" bothers or offends them.
Another Advancing Oklahoma panelist, Tamya Cox-Touré, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma (ACLU), noted that her organization filed a lawsuit challenging House Bill 1775, which was passed into law in 2021.
That law bans K-12 schools from teaching students that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” The law includes several other similar prohibitions that target concepts broadly associated with Critical Race Theory.
“We’re also working on any bill that we deem is interfering in the lives and livelihoods of our 2SLGBTQQIA Oklahomans,” Cox-Touré said. “We are seeing, unfortunately, a lot of anti-, transphobic bills that are making its way through the Legislature. We are doing our best to advocate with communities against those bills.”
One of the bills opposed by the ACLU this year is Senate Bill 2, which was recently signed into law. That legislation states, “Athletic teams designated for ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’ shall not be open to students of the male sex,” therefore ensuring that Oklahoma girls and young women are not required to compete against transgender women—males who identify as female—in sporting events.
The Advancing Oklahoma session began with a disclaimer stating that the program’s sponsors “are not responsible for, and do not endorse, any content published or disseminated at Advancing Oklahoma meetings or events.” The disclaimer also said that sponsoring organizations “take no responsibility for, and make no endorsement of the materials, presentations, opinions, statements, articles or social media postings of speakers or participants in Advancing Oklahoma. The expressed views or opinions of participants in Advancing Oklahoma meetings or events are the views and opinions of the speakers alone and are not the views of any organization.”
But Ashley Holden of News 9, who moderated the March panel, separately informed participants, “We also want to mention that Advancing Oklahoma is made possible through the generosity of 13 sponsors from around the state. In addition to financial support, these sponsors have also helped with program content and speaker recruitment. Special appreciation to our presenting sponsor, Paycom. Thank you for your leadership.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.