This is the first post in a running series based on our recent report, Closing the Opportunity Gap: Building Equity in Oklahoma, which assesses the racial wealth gap and proposes solutions for closing that gap through asset-building. There is a slight but important nuance in the difference between wealth that comes from building assets, and wealth that comes from rising incomes. There is mounting evidence that wealth in the form of financial assets – e.g. homes, businesses, and savings accounts – promotes financial security, interrupts intergenerational poverty, and improves household health and quality of life.
In terms of racial wealth in Oklahoma, our history is replete with examples of state-sanctioned efforts to appropriate assets from people of color. The now infamous Tulsa Race Riot resulted in the overnight dissolution of hundreds of Black homes, banks, and businesses – set ablaze by White rioters. Before the violence, the wealth amassed by Tulsa’s Black middle class was an impressive tribute to a community determined to prosper in the rough and unsettled Oklahoma territory. The White community in Tulsa opposed and obstructed the reconstruction of Black infrastructure for decades after the riot.
In the early 1920s, members of the Osage Nation were the richest people per in capita in the world, with legal claim to vast holdings of oil-rich Oklahoma territory. While a strong Nation today, the Osage were stripped of much of that wealth during the so called ‘Reign of Terror,’ when headrights were violently transferred to Whites by murderers and conmen. It’s easy to see the roots of Oklahoma’s racial wealth gap in these examples. The children and grandchildren of those whose assets were stolen or destroyed lost the advantages that would have come from the wealth of their parents and grandparents. Perhaps more importantly, they lost the opportunity to build on that success.
The effects of historical instances of asset-stripping in Oklahoma can still be seen today. When wealth is measured in terms of financial assets, White households in the state have accumulated significantly more wealth than households of color. Households of color in Oklahoma experience asset poverty at twice the rate (39.1 percent) of White households (21.9 percent). A household is asset poor when they lack sufficient financial assets to subsist at the poverty level for at least three months if they lost their income.
This persistent inequality is a structural impediment to economic development and a drag on growth. Oklahoma is transforming from a state with a predominately White population to one that is increasingly diverse. Children of color now comprise a majority of the population of children in 11 of the state’s 77 counties, and 44 percent of all children in Oklahoma are racial and ethnic minorities. Diverse communities are inextricably linked by commerce, travel, and investment. Ignoring equity in the face of theses demographic realities ensures that economic growth will become shallow and lethargic.
Our report, Closing the Opportunity Gap: Building Equity in Oklahoma, details why closing the opportunity gap for people of color is a central concern for a prosperous Oklahoma. The next post in this series will measure the wealth and asset gap by race and ethnicity in Oklahoma, beginning with a person’s most foundational assets, health and education. Subsequent posts will continue with data measuring the gap through every level of an individual and household’s development.