OKCPS board member decries ‘racism on this board’
May 13, 2021
When the mostly white members of the Oklahoma City school board recently decried a new state law that bans schools from teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” one board member suggested the group has bigger problems.
According to Oklahoma City School Board member Ruth Veales, the members of the Oklahoma City school board are themselves racist—and have been for years.
“I have experienced racism on this board for every year of this,” said Veales, one of the few black members of the board and the group’s longest-serving member, having first been elected in 2010.
Veales made her comments during board discussion of House Bill 1775, a new law recently signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt that bans K-12 schools from requiring or making part of a course any material that declares “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
The law includes several similar provisions, such as banning instruction that tells children an individual “should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.”
During the meeting, board member Carrie Coppernoll Jacobs, who is white and previously worked as a teacher, said “the conversations that happened in my classroom would absolutely have been illegal under House Bill 1775.” Board member Meg McElhaney, who is white, said HB 1775 “makes something that I think is critical to a public-education system illegal.” Other members described the law as censorship.
Veales made similar comments and joined all members of the board in voting to denounce the law.
But she repeatedly stressed that racism is a problem for fellow board members, even though the group has embraced many political causes popular among white progressives, such as renaming school buildings, participating in gay-pride parades, and touting “equity” efforts associated with critical race theory.
Veales directed much of her criticism towards Oklahoma City School Board Chair Paula Lewis.
Lewis narrowly won re-election to the board chair position in April, receiving 52 percent of the vote compared to 48 percent for Charles Henry, a black candidate who previously served on the board alongside Lewis. In that race, Lewis was supported by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization “dedicated to electing openly LGBTQ people who can further equality at all levels of government.”
On her campaign website, Lewis vowed to implement “culturally responsive leadership and practices that will remove barriers to academic success associated with implicit bias and structural racism.” She touted her support of an “equity policy” for Oklahoma City schools as well as creation of an Equity Department in the district, which she noted was “one of the first in the country.”
The equity policy includes language common to documents derived from critical race theory, including downgrading any emphasis on racial equality. The policy explicitly states that Oklahoma City Public Schools “recognizes that equity does not mean equality” and that the school district “must continually evaluate the progress to achieve and maintain systemic change.” The policy also states that the superintendent “shall use an equity lens in all district planning efforts and shall report to the board at least annually on progress toward our goal of equitable student academic outcomes.”
While Lewis has touted her commitment to progressive political causes, Veales said she feels “oftentimes on this board that I am looked at as this ‘angry black woman’ because I speak out,” and said it often appears that “no one hears what I am saying and the importance of what I am saying.”
Lewis responded, “I’ll apologize that I have not responded in a way that made you feel heard or respected.”
Veales said that was insufficient and said Lewis has declined to make time to address racial issues during board meetings.
“The responsibility of the board chair is to set an agenda to where we can have these conversations,” Veales said. “I came to you privately and asked you, ‘Would you fix or put a space to where we could have these conversations?’ You immediately—rather than to say, ‘I hear you; let’s do this’—your immediate response to me was that ‘I don’t appreciate you calling me racist.’ My comments back to you was that, ‘Y’all don’t want to be called racist, but you want to do racist stuff, and as far as I’m concerned if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.’”
Veales said that discussion occurred in March 2020 and “to this date there still has not been a space to have that particular conversation.”
She noted the board was preparing to “vote on disavowing what the governor has done, but we have not addressed a board member, a seated board member, that represents a high level of students of color, in particular blacks. So that’s my concern still. It has not been resolved.”
Lewis responded, “I’ll stick with my apology.”