Bigotry is obviously wrong, but enabling racism from a position of power is equally heinous.
Several weeks ago, the internet watchdog website HateTrackers published a report in which it identified Bonnie and Stephen Kukla as white supremacists and clandestine members of the Ku Klux Klan. Though not a well-known or particularly reputable news source, HateTrackers backed up its accusation with photo and video footage of the Kuklas performing and speaking at white nationalist events, as well as linking to a Klan website that mentions them by name. The couple was also identified as affiliates of Pastor Dan Gayman’s Church of Israel, which is well-known for espousing the “serpent seed” doctrine that says Jews are the descendants of Satan.
Is it supposed to shock you that two racist lowlives happen to be living in Oklahoma? Of course not, especially when recent studies like the one published last year by UVA’s Institute for Family Studies identify up to 11 million Americans as white supremacists. Bonnie’s occupation as an employee in the Tulsa County Court Clerk’s office isn’t the headline either (who ever heard of a racist working in government?). Nor is it even the fact that she hasn’t yet lost her job, as I believe it should be perfectly understandable for her employer to want to conduct some independent research before making such a decision.
No, the incredible thing about this story is the following statement from the County Clerk Donald Newberry, one that seems to indicate that such research isn’t even on the table: “I do not in any way condone or believe that discrimination, based on race, religion or sex, has any place within the workspace. At the same time, I and all that work for this office, have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, part of which is the protection of free speech. If at any time I find that someone is not performing their duty to uphold the Constitution, the situation would be dealt with according to the offense.”
What drivel from an evidently spineless, cowardly, obfuscating little weasel of a public official.
Know that I don’t possess any personal vendetta against this man. I knew absolutely nothing about him before I began researching this story, and from his biography on the clerk’s office website, I’ve learned that he’s a graduate of the University of Tulsa, a deacon at the Memorial Baptist Church where he teaches Sunday school and a volunteer at the Tulsa County Juvenile Justice Center.
That’s all well and good, but if I might speak directly to Mr. Newberry for a moment, I’ve got one simple request as to how you might improve your character a little: stop hiding behind the paper veil of free speech and fire the unabashed bigot you have working for you.
Look at this series of quotes from Newberry from a Tulsa World article on the controversy two weeks ago: “We wouldn’t tolerate it in the office. Now, outside the office, we can’t really tell people anything other than it’s their business. … But if they are on our time, we would not tolerate it. … This is not me. This is not who I am. This is not my stuff. … I wouldn’t tolerate it with my friends. I wouldn’t tolerate it with my employees.”
While I am relieved to hear that our county clerk does not spend his weekends burning crosses and donning a white hood, his evasiveness leaves a great deal to be desired. Newberry has a lot to say about tolerance or his lack thereof, but by not removing Kukla from her position, he is doing exactly the thing he claims to be against: “tolerating it with [his] employees.”
Evidently, it’s enough for Newberry that his lowlife co-workers keep their indiscretions to themselves. Quality of character? It appears to be irrelevant.
We can unpack this issue a number of ways, but let’s start with the most obvious one: free speech. I am not a bleeding-heart liberal who seeks to censor people’s opinions I disagree with. I believe that hate speech does and should fall under the banner of the First Amendment. But since everyone always seems to forget during discussions on freedom of expression, let’s remember what the Constitution actually says: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Article II, Section 22 of Oklahoma’s constitution uses similar wording. Notice something conspicuously absent? There’s nothing in either document that compels the government to hire people with bigoted beliefs. Shocking, I know!
Of course, you might fire back by saying that even if firing Kukla wouldn’t strictly speaking be a First Amendment issue, it would still violate the principle of free speech. This seems to be the crux of Newberry’s argument — that a person somehow shouldn’t face the music in any other aspects of their life if they say or do something obscene. “So what if the Kuklas believe in the inferiority of blacks, Jews, Catholics or any number of other groups on their own time?” one might say. “It’s not affecting their demeanor or performance at work!”
This assumes one of two things: first, that a person is somehow able to turn off the part of their brain that believes in their own racial supremacy and treat everyone fairly when they go to work in the morning. The flimsiness of this argument should be self-evident, because if a person’s convictions were held so weakly, they wouldn’t affiliate themselves with an organization as evil as the KKK in the first place. But even if you did believe that Bonnie Kukla could don an entirely inclusive persona in her professional life, you would then have to operate under the assumption that a person’s private life has no bearing on their job.
Should the clerk’s office have so little regard for its reputation and public perception that it willingly aligns itself with a known racist? Those seem like awfully low standards. Would anyone really chime in with “free speech” as a defense if Bonnie Kukla had filled her social media with pictures of rowdy drinking and drug use instead of associating with neo-Nazis? And yes, I know full well that drug use is illegal and membership in the Klan isn’t. If that’s your line, you might need to reevaluate your moral compass.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” It doesn’t say anything about preventing discrimination based on participation in hate groups. Use whatever rationale you want — that it hurts the reputation and credibility of the clerk’s office, that it’s disruptive to the non-racists who work alongside Kukla, that it’s deeply offensive to all decent Oklahoma citizens who don’t want their elected officials to be in bed with a monster from this country’s dark past — just don’t try to act like everyone in this situation has their hands tied.
If my vitriol seems misplaced, like I’m more upset at Newberry than the Kuklas Klansmen, it’s because I don’t believe that heinous couple needs any more denouncing. Affiliating yourself with a group proud of its lynching past, one that would deport or enslave people of color given the opportunity, could not be more of an indication that you are a fraction of a human being. It is Newberry and others around him that need a fire lit under them, because they are the ones sitting on their hands when they have the power to make a difference.
Nearly every great human rights violation in history can be traced to the indifferent and moderate majority remaining idle instead of standing up to the bullies and the bigots. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan is evil. We shouldn’t view complicity and failure to take measures denouncing it as anything less. Your move, Mr. Newbury.