The first of many unsettling racist encounters as I traveled across Oklahoma was in a diner where a voter told me that "Obama should be taken out before it is too late." In 2009, after the president was elected, colleagues and I saw a Tea Party protester at a rally outside the state Capitol with a sign that simply read, “Biden 2009.” Obviously, there is only one way a sitting vice president becomes president in a nonelection year.
Perhaps more unsettling has been the complete silence of prominent Republican leaders in Oklahoma to the persistent racism within their political party and in Oklahoma’s political culture since the election of Obama. No objective person can deny that it is there. After all, Rep. Sally Kern's racist comments came on the same day that the first African-American president in the history of the United States was forced to publicly reveal his birth certificate in order to appease a wing of the GOP that is driven by racist sentiments.
For the GOP to not condemn Kern is to condone her actions. And I am afraid the reason it is not being challenged by the GOP is not because they naively think concerns over racism are overblown, but because to condemn this pervasive political bigotry (which also includes homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Hispanic xenophobia and sexism) could have negative electoral consequences for their candidates. They know this is true, but they will never publicly admit it.
With power and public service comes great responsibility.
Clearly, Gov. Mary Fallin, House Speaker Kris Steele and other GOP leaders are hiding from the toxicity of Kern compulsively revealing her deeply offensive beliefs on the House floor. Her apology was surely forced on her behind closed doors. And we all know that there are Oklahomans who agree with her, but who are not willing to defiantly air them publicly like Kern.
It is disappointing that Republican leaders, who I know are more moderate than Kern, seem not to want to disturb the base of their political party by publicly condemning her. I can't interpret their timidity in any other way. “I disagree with her” is about the least enthusiastic comment one could make in opposition. It is like when someone says with annoyance, “Well, if you want me to say ‘I’m sorry,’ then ... I’m sorry.”
GOP leaders are simply putting politics before principle. To show no outrage toward what is undeniably a racist statement that could also be found on a white supremacist website, shows a lack of moral leadership.
The GOP will surely keep rolling up their electoral victories in the near future in the Oklahoma. However, they may want to think a bit more about their legacies and at what cost they creatively try and hold their conservative coalition together year by year. I am sure the near-term power is intoxicating, but at what cost to the greater good?
Sen. Rice, a Democrat, represents District 46 in Oklahoma City.