Growing black caucus in Oklahoma Legislature expands its voice
Oklahoma's Legislative Black Caucus enters 2019 with seven members — its largest total ever — and hopes to build off last year when the group of African-American lawmakers worked to raise their profile and put a spotlight on issues such as criminal justice reform, health care, redistricting and voter suppression.
The seven members of the caucus all come from the Oklahoma City and Tulsa area, but Sen. George Young said his caucus traveled last year to black communities outside of the state's two largest cities to give more black residents a voice at the state Capitol.
"Last year we tried to get out more into the state and visit the pockets of African-American communities, even if they don't have a black representative," said Young, D-Oklahoma City, the chair of the caucus.
The caucus also increased its presence on social media, which included Facebook video interviews with its members and a news conference carried live on the internet to announce success in getting state driver's manuals to include a section on what to do when stopped by law enforcement.
This year, the caucus plans to be vocal on criminal justice reform, especially when it comes to supporting Oklahomans who have been released from prison.
"I'm a big believer in rehabilitation, and as a criminal defense attorney, I can express to the Legislature what I see every day," said Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City.
Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed support for reduced sentencing for nonviolent offenses, especially as Oklahoma leads the nation in incarceration rates.
But Young said his caucus wants to ensure the conversation also includes post-incarceration services.
"If we have fewer people in prison that means we have more people trying to rebuild their lives," said Young, who has authored a bill that would create a pilot program to offer inmates post-release education and rehabilitation services.
In addition to Young and Lowe, the black caucus includes Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa; Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa; Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa; Rep. Merleyn Bell, D-Norman; and Rep. Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City.
This year the black caucus will also host its biennial A.C. Hamlin Awards Banquet.
"We have a record number of African-American women who are judges in Oklahoma and we are going to honor them this year," Lowe said.
Representation still lags population
Even with its largest caucus ever, the number of black legislators is only about 5 percent of the Legislature. That is below the proportion of black citizens, which make up 8 percent of the state population.
Black residents in the state often disproportionately face higher incarceration rates, reduced educational opportunities and lower health outcomes.
"In just about every category there is great disparity, and that's why we have a need for a black caucus," Goodwin said. If we have to remind you that black lives matter then we have a problem. But we are here to remind you."
Goodwin said the caucus has showed a unified front in recent years in response to overt acts of racism, such as a when a black educator was presented with a white robe, hood, and Confederate flag during a state CareerTech conference.
Goodwin also said she wants to help create more opportunities for minority-owned businesses.
"We've got to do a better job of not just making sure that these qualified folks get a seat at the table, but also get to eat at the table, because there's a difference," Goodwin said.
While black representation in government remains low, it has improved.
In 1965, there were only six black members of the U.S. House of Representatives, no black members in the U.S. Senate and no black governors, according to Pew Research Center.
This year, 53 members of the House and three members of the Senate are black. There are no black governors.
Oklahoma's Black Caucus includes Pittman and Bell, who were elected in November.
"I know from times when I visited the Capitol as a student ... it didn't feel like my place or a place that was meant for me," Bell said.
"We say all the time that this is the 'People's House.” So, it should look like that in terms of the people who are there representing all Oklahomans, and I'm happy to play a part in that.”
Legislative Black Caucus members
Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City
Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City
Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa
Sen. Kevin Matthews. D-Tulsa
Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa
Rep. Merleyn Bell, D-Norman
Rep. Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City