Schools, housing, & poverty: Thoughts on segregation in Tulsa

This is an edited version of remarks made to a community form hosted by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice on “Resegregation of Tulsa Schools” held September 4, 2014. All statistics, along with their sources, are compiled in this spreadsheet.


In a 1974 paper in the American Journal of Sociology, two scholars examined data on segregation in public elementary schools. They looked at schools in 60 cities, just before the start of serious efforts by the federal government to enforce the desegregation of public schools in the South. The researchers used a statistical measure called the dissimilarity index to look at how segregated or integrated the schools were in each city.

Not surprisingly, the research found most US school systems were strongly segregated. On the index where 0 represents perfect integration and 100 represents perfect segregation, the average score for the 60 cities was 79 percent.  The scores ranged from a low of 39 in Sacramento to a high of 97 in two cities – Tulsa and Oklahoma City. We’ve clearly had a lot of ground to make up over the past 40 years.

How far have we come? According to data compiled at the website, in the 2010-2011 school year for the Tulsa MSA (metropolitan statistical area), the dissimilarity index for Black primary school students was 62.9 percent. This means that if Black students’ concentration in schools were to match their share of the overall school population, more than three in five students would need to be reassigned to another school. But by 2011, Tulsa was no longer among the most segregated school systems in the nation. Among the 100 largest metropolitan areas, we ranked as the 47th most segregated, right in the middle of the pack.

Oveschool desegregation in tulsa reportrall in the Tulsa MSA, African-American students make up 11.9 percent of the total public school population. But in 19 schools located in Tulsa County, Black students make up a majority, and in 12 schools  they make up 75 percent or more of the student population. All of these schools are in the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) school district – none are in suburban districts. In fact, every school in Tulsa County with at least 21 percent Black students in 2011 was a TPS school. Meanwhile in 71 schools in Tulsa County, Blacks make up 5 percent or less of the school population. Only 2 of those 71 are part of TPS – the rest are suburban school districts.

Another common measure of segregation, known as the exposure or isolation index, provides a more optimistic perspective on integration. The exposure index measures the racial composition of the school that the average child of various races attends. In 2011, the average Black student in the Tulsa MSA attended a school that is 38 percent Black, 28 percent White, 18 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Native American, and 5 percent other. The average White student attended a school that is 59 percent White and 41 percent minority. The average Hispanic student attended a school that is 33 percent Hispanic, and the average Native American student attended a school that is 25 percent American Indian.

Our schools are not racially monolithic, but there remains a strong connection between race and socioeconomic status.  Across the Tulsa MSA, the poverty rate in public primary schools in 2011 was 63 percent – that’s the percentage of all students who were eligible for the free and reduced school lunch program. For the average White student, the poverty rate of the school they attend was 55 percent; for Native American students it was 63 percent; for Hispanic students, 77 percent, and for Black students, 81 percent. If you’re a white student, about one in two students in the school you attend will be eligible for free- and reduced-lunch; if you’re a Black student, four in five.

The impact of high-poverty schools

The fact that most Black and Hispanic students in Tulsa are attending schools with high concentrations of low-income students has far-reaching consequences. As Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute has argued, in most cases, low-income students generally come to school less ready to learn. They may be dealing with health issues, with hunger, and with stress that comes from living in households and neighborhoods where crime and violence are prevalent. Rothstein notes:

Remediation becomes the norm and teachers have little time to challenge the exceptional students who can overcome personal and family hardships that typically interfere with learning. When classrooms fill with students who come to school less ready to learn, teachers must focus more on discipline and less on learning

Two obstacles to student achievement that are particularly prevalent in high-poverty schools are student mobility and student absenteeism. In Tulsa County in 2011, in the schools where Black students made up 50 percent or more of the population, the mobility rate was 33 percent – meaning one in three students left the school over the course of a year. The average absentee rate was 17 percent in those schools. By comparison, in Tulsa county schools with 5 percent or less African-American students, the mobility rate was just 7 percent, and the absentee rate was about half of what it was where Blacks were a majority. This doesn’t just affect the particular child who is missing school days or changing schools over the course of the year – where this is prevalent, it affects all the students in the classroom, as teachers struggle to bring students up to speed.

Segregated neighborhoods

In Tulsa, as in the rest of the nation, schools are still segregated by race and by income because neighborhoods and housing are still segregated by race and by income. The dissimilarity index for neighborhoods at the census tract level in the Tulsa MS for Blacks in 2010 was 57 percent. That actually puts Tulsa right around the middle of the pack for the 100 largest Metropolitan areas in the nation. But it still means that a majority of Black residents of Tulsa would have to relocate for Blacks to be spread out across the area in a manner comparable to their share of the overall population.

[pullquote]The concentration of a community in high-poverty neighborhoods remains primarily a problem affecting African-Americans.”[/pullquote] The unfortunate reality is that Blacks are overwhelmingly more likely to live in high poverty neighborhoods than are Whites. In Tulsa in 2000, more than half of all Blacks – 53.5 percent – lived in neighborhoods where 20 percent or more of people lived below the federal poverty level. That puts Tulsa 25th highest among the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the nation. Among non-Hispanic Whites, just 9 percent lived in high poverty areas (for Hispanics, it was 25 percent ). And 10 percent of the Black population lives in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 40 percent and above, compared to less than 1 percent of Whites.

New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey found that not only is the likelihood of living in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty much greater for Blacks, but mobility out of such neighborhoods is much more limited. Considering all black families, 48 percent had lived in poor neighborhoods for at least two generations, compared to only 7 percent of white families.

So Black children are much more likely to be raised and attend schools in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty – and to be stuck in those neighborhoods over multiple generations. We know that in Tulsa over the past two decades, we’ve seen a notable diffusion of poverty. There are now poor families of all racial and ethnic backgrounds – Black, White, Hispanic, Native, Asian – living throughout the city and out into the suburbs. Poverty is by no means exclusively a Black or North Tulsa phenomenon. But the concentration of a community in high-poverty neighborhoods remains primarily a problem affecting African-Americans.

The force of history

Understanding and explaining why African-Americans continue to live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty is a vast and complicated question that cannot be addressed without careful historical investigation. It didn’t just happen that Black children ended up in racially homogenous schools and neighborhoods. It didn’t just happen that Blacks ended up in high-poverty, disadvantaged, underserved neighborhoods, while Whites ended up in middle-class suburbs surrounded by good roads and parks and health care facilities and grocery stores. This situation didn’t come about by chance or coincidence or magic; it has has deep roots in our history and policies continuing up to the present day.

You cannot explain why the median White household in this country has 18 to 20 times more accumulated wealth than the median Black household without looking at decades and centuries of public policies and private practices that helped one group of citizens accumulate wealth while preventing and destroying the wealth of another group of citizens. The history has involved everything from poll taxes and voter disenfranchisement laws to discriminatory job hiring and college admissions policies, to outright violence and destruction, such as the Tulsa Race Riot, which burned to the ground the businesses and homes of thousands of African-Americans.

Many of the most far-ranging and destructive pillars of American segregation have been erected in the domains of housing and home ownership. You cannot understand why the homeownership rate in Tulsa for Blacks is 40 percent while for Whites it is 72 percent without looking into the long history of discriminatory housing and financial policies that were set in place by government and the private sector alike in the United States. Earlier this year, the Atlantic Magazine published a remarkable essay by the brilliant African-American journalist Ta Nehisi Coates in which he focused on the myriad forms that housing discrimination took in 20th Century America. To cite just one example:

ITa-Nehisi Coatesn 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA insured private mortgages, causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house. But an insured mortgage was not a possibility for African Americans. The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.” These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.

These discriminatory public policies gradually ended in the mid-20th century, but we don’t have to look far back in time to find equally insidious patterns of discrimination. In the 1980s and 1990s, the sub-prime mortgage industry emerged to offer loans for home purchase and refinance loans to individuals with tainted credit. These loans served a purpose, but in many cases they served to strip wealth away from low-income and minority homeowners. Among low-income Blacks, 68.5 percent of refinance loans in 2005 were high-interest loans, compared to 44 percent among low-income Whites, a gap of 25 percentage points. When the crash came, minorities were hit hardest. In Tulsa, the home ownership rate for Blacks fell 2 percentage points between 2000 and 2010, while for Whites it remained unchanged. The Urban Institute found that between 2004 and 2010, the average Hispanic family saw its wealth cut by 25 percent, while African-American families saw their wealth fall by 23 percent. By comparison, the wealth of white families fell by 1 percent.

To sum up, it seems to me that we are not going to succeed in addressing problems of poor student performance and failing schools unless and until we honestly confront the long history and continuing manifestations of racial segregation in our city and in our nation. Fifty years ago, during a commencement address at Howard University, President Lyndon Baines Johnson said the following:

640px-37_Lyndon_Johnson_3x4Negro poverty is not white poverty. Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences—deep, corrosive, obstinate differences—radiating painful roots into the community and into the family, and the nature of the individual. These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice. They are anguishing to observe… But they must be faced and they must be dealt with and they must be overcome, if we are ever to reach the time when the only difference between Negroes and whites is the color of their skin.

There are no easy answers, but I appreciate the willingness of the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice to provide a forum for a difficult and necessary conversation.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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