Progeny executive director Marquetta Atkins answers questions during an April 17, 2023, interview at the Progeny office in Wichita. Her advocacy work often places her in conflict with lawmakers who refuse to acknowledge systemic racism. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
WICHITA — When Marquetta Atkins was 7 or 8 years old and the subject of slavery came up at school, she was the only Black child in the classroom.
Everyone would turn and look at her as though she were a slave.
“If I can be subjected to something like that, why can’t your kids know the truth?” Atkins said.
Atkins’ work as executive director for Progeny, a youth advocacy group in Wichita, often places her in conflict with lawmakers who refuse to acknowledge systemic racism.
For the past two years, Kansas Republicans have been more interested in shielding white children from the application of “critical race theory” — a political catchall they apply to grievances with history lessons and diversity training. The opposition is consistent with fringe Christian beliefs on race.
Kansas Reflector is examining the influence of religious beliefs on state government through a series of stories.
In an interview for this series, Atkins said political leaders were willing to ignore the truth about this country’s history and undo progress “just so white men can feel comfortable.”
“You know, my mother was a little girl when the civil rights movement was happening,” Atkins said. “She’s not that old. And it was some of these people that are in these offices right now who were young and anti-civil rights movement, and they’re holding seats right now. And when you look at some of those pictures of people spitting on people, and people doing violent things to people — these are people’s grandparents that are alive, right now.
“So imagine your grandchild looking at a history book and seeing you spitting on someone just because they were Black. Is that a story you want your grandchild to see?”
Reno County Republicans who met in March considered the topic of race from a Biblical perspective. A secret audio recording of their conversation, which included local and state GOP officials, two legislators and unidentified crowd members, was shared with Kansas Reflector. The meeting took place at Riverside Baptist Church in Hutchinson.
A point of emphasis in the conversation: Everybody descended from Adam and Eve, and we are all children of Noah.
“We are all related,” an unidentified woman said. “We are one blood according to the Book of Acts. And so there is no such thing as race. And to make such a thing of this is just ridiculous.”
Adam Peters, GOP chairman for Ellis County, told her “that’s absolutely true.”
Where does “whiteness” come from, Peters asked? Not the devil, he assured the 50-75 people at the meeting. He explained that his ancestors simply didn’t get enough vitamin D in their diet.
“You need pale skin to collect the sun, right? That’s the answer to that,” Peters said. “It’s just a simple result of history and nature that made me look the way that I am. That doesn’t make me a disease. That doesn’t make me the cause of the world’s problems. It’s just the way that God saw fit to create.”
But Peters and others at the meeting embraced racist tropes. They reasoned that Black men are more likely to commit crime because of low marriage rates.
“The main reason why Black suspects are disproportionately killed by the police is they disproportionately tried to kill the police,” Peters said. “Now, you may hear that a disproportionate number of Black suspects are killed while unarmed. This is true, but unarmed does not equal not a threat.”
The comments were part of a larger discussion on critical race theory and protests that stemmed from a police officer’s murder of George Floyd in 2020.
After Floyd’s death, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly formed a task force to study racial equity and justice. The panel outlined more than 100 ideas for addressing education, health care and economic issues — but the Republican-controlled Legislature held no hearings on any corresponding legislation. The panel’s proposals were the basis for political attacks on Kelly during last year’s governor’s race.
Instead, lawmakers focused on keeping critical race theory out of public schools.
Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and chairwoman of the K-12 Education Budget Committee, said during an October 2021 meeting that rising child suicide rates could be blamed on the way history is taught in public schools. A review of child deaths didn’t support her claims.
“If we go back to any race of people in any part of the world, you’re going to find things that you’re very proud of, and things that you would be very disturbed to know,” Williams said. “But to place that burden on a little white girl, compared to another person of another ethnic or racial background, is wrong. And she should not feel shame or guilt for something that she cannot control — one, her skin color; number two, the past that predated her.”
This year, the Legislature tried to block state universities from asking faculty members, students and contractors about diversity, equity and inclusion. Concerns about racial disparities surfaced in debates on juvenile justice, homelessness and restrictions on food assistance.
In the closing days of the session, Rep. Ford Carr complained that legislation legalizing fentanyl test strips had been packaged with tougher penalties for fleeing and eluding police. Carr, who is Black, said the bill was an attempt to punish young Black men who have good reason to fear police.
“People are scared, and when they’re scared they do things,” Carr said. “They try to evade and get away.”
Rep. Trevor Jacobs, a Fort Scott Republican, marched to the front of the House to offer a rebuttal. Jacobs said he was sick of hearing that “pretty near every single bill that we do up here involves race or bigotry.”
“It’s not about race or racism here,” Jacobs said. “And if it is, I believe that this body is more compassionate and loving to not embrace that. It gets old.”
Carr returned to the front of the House to respond.
“I would be a bitter fool to believe that there isn’t someone in here or some people within this body where race is an issue,” Carr said. “The fact that we want to wish it away is easy when it doesn’t affect you.”
Atkins, the Progeny leader, said systemic oppression has always existed in this country. After slavery, Jim Crow laws and the redlining of communities continued to oppress Black people, she said.
“And so now we’re at a point in this country where people want to say racism doesn’t exist,” Atkins said. “But a little boy knocked on somebody’s door in Kansas City, looking for his brother and sister, and had the wrong address. And that caused him to be shot two times. Just ringing a doorbell.”
Andrew Lester, an 84-year-old white man, was charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action for shooting Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old Black boy, twice in the head on April 13.
Atkins marveled at the idea that Black people would want to make up the idea of being oppressed.
“They’re literally telling a whole community of people that your stories are invalid,” Atkins said. “Like we would want to sit up here and make up racism. Like we want to make up being oppressed. And it’s the most foolish s*** — I’m sorry — that I’ve ever heard in my entire life, because you’re invalidating all that I am and all that I experienced in my life.”
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