Does the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City remain unfinished mainly because of the long, sordid history of discrimination against indigenous people in this country?
It’s time to start seriously asking that question.
I’m sure the lawmakers, primarily Republicans, who refuse to complete the project by funding it would disagree and refer to the intricacies and quirks of the political process, but there the unfinished project sits, right off Interstate 40 in downtown Oklahoma, stalled since 2012.
It’s not difficult to view the project as a small gesture of reparation from the country’s dominant white culture, which removed native people from their lands and killed many of them in the process. Under this frame, the fact the project remains unfinished because the state government won’t fund it is yet another instance of institutionalized bigotry and the enduring legacy of European colonization of what became the United States. Would this be happening to a project depicting the history, lives and achievements of any particular group of people who identify as white and have ancestral ties to colonizers? That’s a question no one seems to want to ask.
House Speaker Jeff Hickman, according to a recent NewsOK.com story, doesn’t seem hopeful the state legislature next session can come up with the $40 million needed to help finish the project. Some leaders are even discussing handing the project off to Oklahoma City. If that needs to happen for the project to be completed, then so be it. Right now, the unfinished project serves as a perfect symbol for the current dominant Republican majority at the state Capitol, which spends much of its time passing frivolous legislation while leaving major issues unresolved.
Hickman argues that legislators outside of Oklahoma City have their own priorities, which apparently doesn’t include the cultural center. The problems with that argument are enormous. Here they are: (1) Everyone in the state will benefit from the center because of its educational value alone. Just imagine, for example, all the school field trips it would generate. (2) It is centrally located in the state, which ensures easy access for everyone in Oklahoma. (3) It will generate more revenue in its current location than if it were located in, say, Enid or Woodward. (4) If it’s a state project, then, philosophically speaking, it belongs to everyone in the state, not just to Oklahoma City residents. This is an important distinction. (5) It’s a major project that will add to the quality of life and should make everyone proud here.
The state has been asked to come up with the $40 million to match $40 million already pledged by private donors. Right now, the unfinished center costs $700,000 to maintain and $5 million in debt service each year, according to the NewsOK.com story. That’s a lot of money for something that is fast becoming a symbol of calculated indifference if not blatant bigotry.
The overall cost of the center, which is being built with Smithsonian-type standards, is estimated at $170 million. There’s little doubt it would attract huge crowds from not only across the state and country but also even the world. It will generate its own self-sustaining revenue through ticket sales. It just has to be finished.
It should be noted by at least some people in conservative Oklahoma that there is opposition in this country and state to President Barack Obama’s escalation of military action against ISIS, the Islamic extremist group.
I’m one of those people who oppose Obama’s decision to unleash American bombs on ISIS in Syria and for any additional escalation of military action in the Middle East. But then again I was opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and, yes, I was right about that, too. Getting it right somehow doesn’t count anymore in America’s international affairs or in the corporate media.
Here are two obvious frames of reference on why we should deploy different tactics in responding to ISIS:
(1) Bombing ISIS won’t work. It’s utterly impossible to eliminate ideas—whatever you might think about those ideas—through brute force. Those ideas, which include opposition to the values and actions of the Western world and especially the United States, will live on even if every current member of ISIS were killed today. Bombing and killing people in the Middle East will only increase support for the ISIS cause. This should be incredibly obvious to everyone.
(2) Innocent people, who don’t hold any animosity towards the Western world, will also be killed in the bombing. This is morally wrong, of course, but, again, it will only increase support for ISIS. Relatives and friends of these innocent victims will seek at the very least some justification for their loss if not direct retribution. How this most obvious scenario of cause and effect doesn’t enter into Obama’s case for military escalation shows just how oblivious the prevailing political establishment—Democrats and Republicans alike—has become to the death and destruction it continues to perpetuate around the globe and especially in the Middle East.
I’m sure that just like in 2003, I and other people who think in these terms will be labeled naïve and simply ignored. Yet we were right about the military occupation of Iraq, a senseless endeavor that left us no safer, generated an onslaught of animosity and cost us much in lost lives and money. Killing people in Syria during that country’s own civil war accomplishes just the opposite of what we should be seeking, which is our own security and peace.
I’m not an isolationist. The U.S. and its allies need an active and holistic approach to our relationship with Middle Eastern countries, one that relies less on military action and more on diplomacy and outreach. This requires actual thinking, intense debate and momentous shifts in policy.
It might be easier in the short term to just kill people than try to build wide consensus among seemingly disparate groups of people from different countries, but history has repeatedly shown violence begets violence.
Just because the average amount of student loan debt in Oklahoma is lower than the national average doesn’t mean there isn’t a major crisis here related to college affordability.
Oklahoma’s higher education leaders have long backed college tuition and fee increases at least partially on the premise that the state’s overall costs for a college education are significantly lower than the national average. That lower rate, it follows, would naturally translate into lower student loan debt as well.
I don’t know how many times through the years I’ve read some quote in the media by a state higher education official that goes something like this: Quit whining. Even when we raise tuition and fees, our universities remain less expensive than in other states.
That doesn’t offer much solace to an Oklahoma college senior getting ready to graduate with $30,000 or more in debt. It probably doesn’t feel to that student it’s a good deal or bargain, which gets complicated even further when you consider a particular university’s reputation.
A recent article on NewsOK.com repeats the trope. It cites a recent analysis by Experian, which offers credit reports and tracking on its online site, that shows there was an 84 percent increase in student loan debt from 2008 to 2014. According to Experian, student loan debt in the country now stands at $1.2 trillion, a record high. The average student loan debt in Oklahoma of $23,636 is lower than the national average of $29,400, according to NewsOK.com, citing the Project on Student Debt.
So begins the age-old story here. Oklahoma Chancellor Glen Johnson claims the numbers prove success. According to the NewsOK.com story, here’s Johnson’s take on the situation: “One significant area of success has been our commitment to affordability. Oklahoma’s state system of higher education is recognized as the fifth most affordable system in the country.”
Later in the story, Johnson also points out that Oklahoma’s tuition and fee increases of 5.3 percent over the last five years are lower than in most states.
Let me be clear that this isn’t a criticism of Johnson, who is merely repeating historical fact as so many others do and have done when it comes to this argument. Our colleges are cheaper here. Who can argue that point?
But one fact that gets lost in the argument over college affordability is that Oklahoma has been consistently ranked among the nation’s bottom 25 states for decades in per capita income. Sometimes, the state has been ranked in the bottom ten. Here are the rankings since 1990.
What that means, of course, is that Oklahomans, along with their access to less expensive colleges compared to other states, also have less money to go to college. It also means that college graduates here if they stay in Oklahoma will overall make less money in the workforce than graduates in other states and consequently have less money to pay down their student loan debt.
Another companion issue omitted from the argument is that Oklahoma has long had a lower number of people with at least bachelor’s degrees than the national average. How many potential students or graduates here simply can’t afford our colleges even though they are less expensive because of our low per capita income rates?
Finally, the argument that a college education is cheaper here can enable people to ignore the fact that growing student loan debt here and elsewhere is a major humanitarian crisis. Banks feast on people simply trying to get an education by doling out loans guaranteed and even molded by the federal government. It’s a great deal for the lenders, but it means a new generation of educated people is now saddled with burdensome monthly payments for years. These people will have a difficult time buying homes or simply just surviving because of their debt.
It doesn’t matter if one gets their degree here or in California or if the debt is $40,000 or $45,000. Many Oklahoma college students, along with their counterparts across the nation, are mired in student loan debt, a development that doesn’t bode well for their financial future or the nation’s financial future.