More than 60 years on, many schools are less integrated than when the civil rights movement began, and the opportunity gap persists.
ENID, Okla. — Six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unlawful, local and state minority leaders still are working to overcome the effects of segregation.
This work continues amidst a mounting body of studies that show gaps in opportunities and outcomes for minorities not only remain, but in some ways have begun to widen, undoing gains made in equality since the 1960s.
The day Clayton Nolen graduated from college in 1970 he celebrated with a first in his life: He ate dinner with his father in a restaurant.
It was an experience denied to Nolen during his youth, due to Jim Crow laws and segregation.
That simple act — eating dinner together as a family in a restaurant — underscored for Nolen a continuing need to improve paths to opportunity for black children.
“That was a big reason I came back home,” Nolen said.
Throughout his 44-year career with Enid Public Schools, Nolen said he mentored a lot of young black students who perceived a disparity in opportunities after graduation, compared to their white peers.
“That was a big concern,” Nolen said, “and we still have some of those issues that need to be resolved.”
U.S. Census statistics back up Nolen’s concerns, and those of his former students.
Black households in Oklahoma have a median annual household income of $36,898, compared to $62,950 for white households, according to 2015 census data.
White households are twice as likely as black households to earn at least $75,000 annually, while black households are about 70 percent more likely to earn less than $30,000 per year, according to the census data.
‘Things haven’t changed a whole lot’
Barbara Finley was struck by the still-lingering effects of segregation, and the opportunity gap for the children of segregation, when she returned to Enid in 2003.
Finley had moved away in the early 1960s, after leaving the segregated Booker T. Washington School in 1958. She lived with her family in Utah and California before returning to Enid’s Southern Heights neighborhood on the east side.
She said the formerly thriving neighborhood had spiraled into deterioration after the community’s schools, Washington, along with Carver and Jackson elementary schools, were closed as part of the district’s integration plan in 1958-1969.
“The vast destruction is what I saw,” Finley said. “When I grew up, it was eight to 10 houses on both sides of my street, and when I came back it looked like a bombed-out village. It was just pure neglect.”
In the community and society as whole, Finley said the attitudes and opportunities surrounding race relations haven’t evolved much since the 1960s, even if they are less overt.
“Things haven’t changed a whole lot,” Finley said.
She said many black families still feel held back by the same racial perceptions that divided black and white during segregation, particularly in job opportunities, and financing for new businesses and homes.
“It’s never out in the open,” Finley said. “But in the end, you don’t get it. That’s the end result.”
Finley said society, both black and white, still is held back by a hesitance to face head-on the vestiges of segregation.
“A lot of people, no matter what your race is, want to forget,” Finley said. “They say, ‘Why bring this back up?’ If you don’t respect and learn from the past — whatever has occurred — it will continue to cause problems.”
Garland Pruitt, president of the Oklahoma City branch of the NAACP, said Oklahomans need to look at “the reality of what was taking place then versus now.”
He said opportunities for minority children, particularly in larger urban school districts, are held back by an increasing trend in the nation’s schools: resegregation.
“What is taking place now is, we’ve actually reverted our way back to segregation,” Pruitt said. “It appears we’re more segregated now than we’ve been in a while, nationwide, including here in Oklahoma.”
Pruitt’s assertions on resegregation are backed up by numerous reports, including a 2016 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The GAO report showed that the percentage of American public schools with high concentrations of poor black or Hispanic students almost doubled — from nine to 16 percent — between 2000 and 2014.
Pruitt said this trend to resegregation stems from more affluent white families moving away from schools with higher percentages of minority students, leaving those schools and their students poorer and more segregated.
“In the 1960s, we finally got schools integrated,” Pruitt said. “Now, in 2017, most of the schools are segregated because they moved out of the inner-city areas. They went to the Piedmonts, the Yukons, the Edmonds, and they get better education, and there’s less of us there.”
The new civil rights movement
Pruitt said achieving equality of opportunity for minorities has to start with making the quality of education equal for all children.
“Education is our new civil rights movement,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt’s comments on education weren’t specific to Enid. In fact, he praised the district for being “more progressive than most districts in the state” with a recently approved teacher and staff pay increase.
But statewide, he said, there remains a gap in education outcomes between white and minority students.
“It’s amazing to me, in 2017, we can come up with a curriculum and a test that has a tendency to fail black students more often than white students, and that’s happening here in Oklahoma,” Pruitt said.
A 2011 study conducted by the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) found minority students in Oklahoma consistently scored lower on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.
The study found black students were scoring about 8 percent lower than white students in NAEP reading and math scores.
And that education gap, the study concluded, correlated with other gaps in opportunity for minorities.
“Achievement gaps are strongly correlated with racial gaps in income, poverty rates, unemployment rates and educational attainment,” the CEPA study stated.
The way forward
State Rep. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, sees education as the key to closing opportunity gaps for minorities in Oklahoma.
Young, who is chair of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus, published last week his “Five Pillars of Progress,” a list of priorities for the minority caucus in the next Legislative session.
Education topped Young’s list, followed by criminal justice, health care, economic and social justice.
Young said his views on education and equality are framed by his youth in Memphis, Tenn., where he attended segregated schools until the ninth grade, then an integrated high school.
“I was brought up through that period,” Young said, “so I got to see both sides of it.”
He said the path to improving outcomes for all students today begins at the head of the classroom.
“We have failed our education system by not providing our teachers high enough salaries,” Young said. “It’s hard to do the job you’re doing if you’re not able to take care of your everyday needs.”
Providing teachers with better pay and resources is the first step, he said, in improving outcomes for not only minority students, but also for children of low-income families and recent immigrants.
“It is an issue of class,” Young said. “It is an issue of trying to lift everyone out of the problems that affect us all, and keep us from being able to enjoy the benefits of this nation.”
‘I’ll always have hope’
Aside from increasing budgets for education and social services, some local leaders call for a personal approach to improving racial understanding, and reversing the lingering effects of segregation: open, compassionate dialogue.
Nolen said many white community members don’t see the vestiges of segregation, because it never impacted them personally.
“If you’ve grown up and haven’t had to deal with certain experiences, many times you’re not made aware of how things used to be, and it may appear very acceptable,” Nolen said. “They just haven’t experienced some of the things we experienced.”
He said there’s a simple way for white community members to approach and improve relations with the minority community: listen.
“You want to take the time to listen, and as you listen don’t be opinionated,” Nolen said. “Get involved, not as a controlling element, but get involved and work together, toward a solution instead of a problem. You need to at least be open-minded about it.”
Finley said conditions improve when people look for the best in each other, regardless of race.
“Even today, we can listen to the rhetoric and hear all the hate being spewed out there,” she said, “but you know good and well not everyone is that hateful.”
She said there’s still a lot of progress to be made in overcoming the effects of segregation, and that progress is made one person at a time.
“It’s not really as good as it could be, but you go on in spite of it,” she said. “You reach for the good in people, and try to make that outweigh the negatives.”
Seeing that goodness in people, Finley said, gives us all cause for optimism.
“I’ll always have hope,” she said. “Even if you can just reach one person at a time, you never overlook the good for the bad, and you just keep on, trying to dilute the bad with the good.”