Obama in Oklahoma

Obama speaking in Durant, OK.  Durant is home to the headquarters of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
Obama speaking in Durant, OK. Durant is home to the headquarters of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Image: KFOR

A week ago, Obama came to Oklahoma for the third time since he’s been in office. The first was in 2012, when he came to voice his support for the part of Keystone XL going from Cushing to Texas (and, not surprisingly, our lovely governor & lieutenant governor made no effort to postpone their vacations in order to greet him). He came again in 2013 to view the damage after the devastating Moore tornado. This time, Obama came to launch a new education initiative and to continue his weeklong push to improve the criminal justice system. His trip to El Reno marks him as the first sitting president to visit a federal penitentiary.

In Durant, OK, headquarters of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Obama launched his ConnectHome initiative.  ConnectHome’s mission is to increase digital literary, through government partnerships with non-profits and private corporations. The initiative will target 27 cities and the Choctaw Nation, for a total of 275,000 public housing households and 200,000 children.  The idea is to help low-income children have fast internet at home, so they can educational materials even when not at school.

Obama explained that those who “could benefit the most from the latest technology are the least likely to have it.” Indeed, a Council of Economic Advisers brief explains that, while 9/10 households where an adult received a college degree had internet, less than half of people with less than a high school education had internet at home.

Obama emphasized that “a child’s ability to succeed should not be based on where she lives or how much money her parents make.” Oklahoma was an apt state to make this proclamation in — Oklahoma ranks 48th in the nation for education, and that’s just not OK! (hahaha okay deepest apologies bad pun). But seriously — if you happen to be born in Oklahoma, you won’t be getting an education at all on par with most of the rest of the nation. Our governor (Mary Fallin, bless her heart) chose to sacrifice Oklahoma’s No Child Left Behind waiver in order to not implement Common Core (although if this finally gets the state to step it up in education, I’m not complaining — but of course things aren’t that simple). Common Core is disliked in Oklahoma because it’s seen as big government taking away states’ rights, and as forcing a “perspective” onto education that some Oklahomans disapprove of: Oklahoma legislators found Advanced Placement similarly appalling and attempted to ban AP US History because, “my goodness, what is this unpatriotic hogwash that says that Manifest Destiny was anything less than America simply spreading its splendid brilliance from sea to shining sea?” The hope was to eventually extend the effort and ban all AP classes, but there was a lot of outrage — both nationally and from young people within the state — and the lawmakers backed down.  That scandal, coupled with the snowball incident, has meant that our little state has certainly not been forgotten.

You’re doing fine Oklahoma, Oklahoma, OK!

During his visit, Obama tried to show that an important group of Oklahomans really have not been forgotten. Barack and Michelle have been working on bringing Native American voices into the White House and building a new relationship with the tribes: “We can’t reverse centuries of history, broken treaties, broken promises, but I believe that we can come together as partners and forge a new path based on trust and respect.”  As part of beginning this process, the White House held a Native American youth summit. Given that 8.6% of Oklahomans are Native American, and many more Okies claim Native American ancestry, Obama’s new efforts could potentially have a significant positive impact on the state.

But alas, the above image rang true even on the day of the president’s visit. Barack Obama was greeted with this sight in both Durant and Oklahoma City:

 This is not what southern hospitality should look like. Image: Getty

This is a real embarrassment. We all knew it was somewhat inevitable that something stupid would happen, but “welcoming” President Barack Obama with a Confederate Flag? To make matters worse, they took on the slogan “Confederate Lives Matter.” Excuse me?

I don’t think “heritage” can justify flying the Confederate flag. But allow me to leave no stone unturned, and indulge in a little history lesson.

Oklahoma was not in the Confederacy. “Oklahoma” did not even exist during the Civil War. Indian Territory (which later became Oklahoma) was an unorganized region occupied by Native Americans that had been kicked out of the Southeast and survived the Trail of Tears.

Some leaders of the Native American tribes did agree to have their land annexed by the Confederacy (though generally without consent or consensus), but that was in exchange for rights, like recognition of their tribal lands. I’m not saying that fixes wrongs that were done, but Indian Territory’s connection to the Confederacy is clearly not the same as that of the states ruled by white plantation owners. All in all, there were seven Civil War battles in Indian Territory.

I am neither sociologist nor historian nor any sort of expert; I can’t tell you how so many Oklahomans got so attached to that flag. From what I can gather, most of the people that came in the land run (which is when white people really took over Oklahoma) came from nearby states — so some may have been from the former Confederacy, but there were also tons of people that were just coming from places like Kansas (who were just coming from somewhere else…which could often be the North, not South).

Anyways, long story short, this whole episode is ridiculous.

The day after arriving in OKC, Obama went to the federal penitentiary in El Reno, the first sitting president to go to anything of the sort.

Obama at the federal prison in El Reno, OK.  Image: Doug Mills/The New York Times
Obama at the federal prison in El Reno, OK. Image: Doug Mills/The New York Times

“There but for the grace of God,” Obama said after his visit. He spoke of how, like many of the people in this prison, he had experimented with drugs; but he was in the White House, and they were in a jail cell. As quoted by the New York Times,

When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.

Incarceration for drug crimes is very disproportionate, and has a whole lot to do with race and class. The massive amount of incarceration in the US tears apart communities — has been particularly devastating to African-American communities — and a whole lot of those in prison are there for non-violent crimes related to drugs. More often than not, the punishment far outweighs the crime (for less privileged people, particularly); there are people in prisons around the country serving many-years-long sentences for marijuana possession that would now be legal in states like Colorado and Washington.

Obama’s visit to Oklahoma brought attention to the state’s deep struggles with education, mass incarceration, and racism. It exposed how many Americans are just getting left behind. But he also brought plans, leadership, and hope for progress. And while the initiatives and reforms Obama is pushing for would have a particularly high impact in Oklahoma, these same policies address issues that the nation as a whole grapples with. There’s a very long ways to go, but I’m hoping that Oklahoma will embrace Obama’s message, make some real changes, and become an example of how, no matter where you’re from, turnaround can happen.

I mentioned this quote above, but there’s a little more to it:

A child’s ability to succeed should not be based on where she lives, how much money her parents make.  That’s not who we are as a country.  We’ve got a different standard.  We’re a people who believe we should be able to go as far as our talents and hard work will take us.

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