Sen. James Lankford wants people of different races in the U.S. to speak to each other

by Chris Casteel   


WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago, U.S. Sen. James Lankford received a photo of a friend, who is white, having Sunday supper with a black family.

The friend wasn’t just touching base. He was showing Lankford that he had responded to the senator’s challenge for Americans to invite someone of another race over for a Sunday meal and a conversation.

Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., issued the call in July as violence escalated between blacks and police.

Lankford recently discouraged a pastor from trying to arrange dinners. He wants people to do it themselves.

“I’d rather have people have that uncomfortable moment of thinking, ‘I don’t know who I would invite,’” Lankford said in an interview.

“If we could get people to have that uncomfortable moment, I think we’re taking a good step to realize, ‘I don’t have relationships like that’ and ask the question: Why?”

As a member of the U.S. House, Lankford met regularly with people in minority communities in the Oklahoma City area. After being elected to the Senate, he took a keen interest in north Tulsa and, in May, gave a speech on the Senate floor about the Tulsa race riot of 1921.

“When I first heard him talk about the riot, I told him that it really touched me to have him talk about it,” said Lester Shaw, executive director of the Tulsa community organization A Pocket Full of Hope.

Lankford, a former Southern Baptist youth camp director, has invited African-American kids from Washington, D.C. to his office for pizza. And, in August, he visited the historic Anacostia neighborhood here to talk to African-Americans about their challenges.

In his Capitol Hill office two weeks ago, Lankford discussed his efforts to bridge the racial divide. He answered additional questions last week after Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby, who is white, shot and killed Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man; the interview last week was before Shelby was charged with first-degree manslaughter.

Some questions and answers have been edited for brevity.

Q: Besides north Tulsa and Anacostia, tell me what other minority communities you’ve been to and what your goal is.

A: I try to be very balanced in getting a chance to visit everybody in the state. I’ve been in counties, I’ve been in communities within counties. There’s a tendency to say “I was in Tulsa” but you’re not just in Tulsa. You’re not just in Oklahoma County or Oklahoma City. There are communities within counties.

So I work very intentionally with my scheduler to make sure I’m balancing my time. I’ll go and visit the Asian community, the African-American community, the Latino community, different parts of the city, whether it be suburbs, urban renewal areas.

Those are not things you can get at a distance. You have to meet people, develop relationships, hear their stories.

It’s the same thing I did as a congressman, quite frankly in the 5th District. We would have so many town hall meetings at the Ralph Ellison library. That was a common place in the (town hall) rotation so I could be there and visit with the black legislators and black pastors … If you build those relationships, it gives you a better perspective but it also allows you, when there are crisis points, to have key people in the community that you can ask the hard questions of, offline.

Q: Is there a religious angle to this?

A: Part of it. When I spoke to the Southern Baptist Convention this summer, part of that service that I was a participant in was inviting some African-American Baptist congregations to be part of the Southern Baptist Convention and to provide a forum for us to be able to model race conversations within the church as well.

The old line — that’s a little bit tired — is that the most segregated place in America is Sunday morning. It’s a great cliché. I think it’s progressively less and less true, as I think churches are working more actively to say, “Why is this? Why don’t we have more relationships?”

Sometimes it’s a preference in style of worship or preaching. That’s why there’s a lot of denominations. There are a lot of preferences on style.

It varies from community to community. You go to Oklahoma City, People’s Church has done a great job of starting a church as a multiracial congregation. Real Church on the north side of Oklahoma City is that way. Life Church is very focused on being that way.

Northwest Baptist Church in Oklahoma City is another good example — multiracial neighborhood so they’re working very hard to be a multiracial congregation.

Q: When you gave your speech on the Tulsa race riot in May, you said “the state quietly ignored the riot.” Do you feel like the Southern Baptist church quietly ignored racism in the South and maybe even participated in it?

A: Oh yeah, participated by far.

There’s no question about participating in it.

You go back a hundred years ago, you go back 60 or 70 years ago, no question the racial segregation in some congregations. Not all but quite a few.

I think there’s been a tremendous amount of healing since that period and a lot of decisions had to be made about: Where are we really on the issue of race?

So there’s no question that was part of the heritage of some churches in the South and in Oklahoma. But I don’t see that anymore. It may be just the churches I’m around.

Q: Do you feel like some African American communities might view your interest in them suspiciously or tentatively?

A: I haven’t experienced that from people that I’ve talked to. I wouldn’t be surprised, though. Quite frankly I’m an elected official and, to some people, no matter what I do is suspicious.

But this has been part of who I am for a very long time. It’s part of the responsibility I have as a leader in the state.

I’ve spent a lot of time asking the question around our state: In 2021, when the entire country looks at Tulsa for just a moment in late May or early June — one hundred years since the race riot — what has been our progress?

It’s a fair question. So I do spend a lot time with multiple members of all parts of the community asking that question: Where are we and how are we going to answer that in 2021?

Q: I spoke to some black Democrats (from Oklahoma) at the Democratic National Convention … They feel like (President Barack Obama’s presidency) has brought out a hatred that was more latent, maybe below the surface, and because of Obama’s presidency, these people have acted out their racism.

A: Here’s what I get from some (black) leaders — not all, but some: You oppose the president on whatever policy it might be. Is it because he’s black?

And I can honestly say to them, No it’s not. Here’s why I disagree with his policy and how it works for everyone.

The Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, is a prime example. I’ve had people say, “You’re arguing about price. We’re finally getting access. We have people that had never been insured who are insured and you’re trying to take that away. It’s a good thing for us and you’re trying to remove that. Is it because the president’s black and the insurance is going to black people?”

That has absolutely nothing to do with it.

But here’s the benefit of it: We could not have that conversation if I wasn’t there to have that conversation and if they didn’t trust me enough to ask the question. So to me, that’s a positive thing … To be in a place where there’s not just suspicion and we never speak but to sit down in the same room and say, “Let’s look at each other and talk about it.”

And you get to a point where you’re able to ask hard questions and deal with that.

You don’t do it shaking hands at a big meeting. You don’t do it around media and cameras.

Q: When you say, “No, it’s not because he’s black,” do you feel like they believe you?

A: I don’t know. I can’t read a heart on that. But I can say, “This is why I think the policy is a wrong direction.”

Q: Donald Trump has this angle now to the minority community: What have you got to lose? Your schools are bad, your neighborhoods are crime ridden, et cetera. Is that how you view black communities?

A: No. You can see crime, you can see poverty in rural areas, urban areas, suburban areas. That’s not a race issue.

Now the challenge is: Disproportionately high numbers of people in the black community face unemployment and face poverty … If you look at population totals, there’s no question we have a higher incarceration rate for black males. No question you have a higher unemployment rate for black males.

So you have to ask the question, why?

The income rate for Latino males and Latino females is lower than it is for white males and white females. Why?

So those are all fair game questions. You’re trying to be open to (the idea that) everyone has opportunity. But when you see a number that is so glaring, it forces you to ask the question — Is there something built into the system?

Q: Is there a race element to the incarceration rate?

A: I wish I knew. I don’t mean to be flippant about that. I don’t think that there is. But here’s the challenge: There are people in the community who clearly see it. And as I talk to some people in the African-American community, they feel a difference in when they’re pulled over, how often they’re pulled over and how often they’re asked for ID … They feel it, they understand it.

I have a friend in the African-American community (in Oklahoma City) and I asked him, “Is there a sense that you have five good encounters with a police officer and one bad encounter and that feeds the stereotype?”

His response to me was, “I’m 40-plus years old, I’ve never had one good encounter with a police officer.”

Now that’s jarring to me because I’ve had a lot of good encounters with police officers where I’ve had the opportunity to interact with some great people. He hasn’t had that reinforcement. You can’t ignore that.

You can be pro-police officer and be incredibly supportive of who they are but still acknowledge there’s occasionally a bad apple in the group.

And you also deal with the realities of a police officer realizing that the homicide rate is higher in some of these neighborhoods. And they’re more on their guard and more attentive and that causes a reaction.

I grieve for police officers who are seeing police officers being assassinated while they’re doing their job.

But I also grieve for black males who face a higher incarceration rate that maybe they’re just getting questioned more often. And that’s a cycle that will only stop with more conversation, and it’s not conversation among elected officials, it’s people.

Q: Have you been in contact with people in north Tulsa about the killing of Terence Crutcher?

A: I’ve made several calls there. My staff has been engaged. We’re just trying to stay connected to the community to hear what they think, feel, hear — what information they’re getting and not getting. These are not just constituents; these are friends, and many of them are connected directly with that family.

I would tell you I’ve had conversations with some who are very pleased with the response of the Tulsa Police Department, the police chief, Chief (Chuck) Jordan, the immediate transparency, the immediate call for federal engagement to look at civil rights top to bottom.

They’re all grieving with the families. We all are. All of us have seen the video, and it’s shocking and it’s painful.

Q: Are you glad that the federal government, the Justice Department, is involved in this now?

A: That’s Tulsa’s call. I think it’s the right call because it gives everyone the assurance that there’s a second set of eyes, whether it’s the federal government or another entity.

Q: What do you see on that video?

A: I would rather say what I feel, rather than what I see, quite frankly. We’re all seeing the helicopter perspective or the dashcam perspective …

What I feel is grief. What I feel is a sense of confusion. I look at the situation and it doesn’t make sense to me.

The whole story will come out, so I hate to second guess anybody at this point.

As I’ve encouraged everyone to do, as everyone in north Tulsa has encouraged everyone to do: Let’s get all the facts out. And as the chief of police said, let’s let justice go where it needs to go.