This article was originally submitted as an op-ed, which The Oklahoman declined to publish.
A recent report by Oklahoma Policy Institute, “Building Equity: Closing the Opportunity Gap in Oklahoma,” outlines large and persistent gaps in wealth, income, and opportunity between Oklahomans of different races and ethnic backgrounds in our state. It explains how the gap was historically created, presents data on the size and scope of the gap, and proposes public policies to equip all Oklahomans with the tools they need to have a better chance at prosperity.
A recent Oklahoman editorial (“Bigotry not to blame for Oklahoma’s shortcomings,” June 24) takes issue with this report. The authors do not dispute the evidence of a racial wealth gap. Rather, they say people of color in Oklahoma have worse health outcomes, higher unemployment, and less educational achievement because of “the impact of personal choices.”
Of course our choices shape our lives. But they certainly do not shape our lives in the neat and predictable way suggested. People who make good choices often land in bad situations, and people who make terrible choices reap unjust rewards. Life’s not fair – a lesson exasperated parents have tried to impart to their children since time immemorial.
Insisting that “personal choice” alone drives the racial wealth gap leads to deeply pernicious conclusions. If our successes and failures are simply the sum of our choices, then wealth disparities by race can only persist because most people of color make poor choices while their wealthier White counterparts make wiser ones.
Common sense tells us otherwise. The adult great-grandchild of a turn-of-the-century oil billionaire can inherit a vast fortune without lifting a finger. At the same time, the great-grandchildren of survivors of the infamous Tulsa Race Riot inherit only memories of a vast fortune lost in a single day as hundreds of Black homes, banks, and businesses were set ablaze by White rioters.
To believe that “those acts are now history, in every sense of the word” is to choose to remain ignorant of the very real and long-lasting effects of a history that enriched generations of Oklahomans by impoverishing others.
Certainly we’ve made progress; individual people of color have risen to positions of power and achieved significant prosperity. But their success does not erase the deep, population-wide effects of race-based asset stripping. Oklahoma’s children continue to struggle with inherited barriers – high-poverty schools, lack of access to playgrounds and grocery stores, police harassment for minor or non-existent infractions.
Oklahoma’s future prosperity depends on us closing the gap. This is an increasingly diverse place to live, and today almost half of the state’s population under 5 is comprised of children of color. The obstacles to opportunity still faced by so many in our state matter for all of us, whatever the color of our skin.