Prominent black OU professor says ‘race is a myth’

Higher Education

Ray Carter | June 22, 2021

Prominent black OU professor says ‘race is a myth’

Ray Carter

The first session of Advancing Oklahoma, a “statewide conversation on race” involving five civic organizations, launched this month with a presentation by George Henderson, who became one of the first black professors at the University of Oklahoma in 1967.

A key part of Henderson’s message: All lives matter.

“I believe this: Ultimately, at the end of our lives, the only race of any significance is the human race,” Henderson said. “Race is a myth. Bigotry is not. Each of us—each of us—have done some cruel things. I have told jokes when I knew better. I have not helped others when I could have. You don’t have to confess if you don’t want to, but I encourage you to be honest. I became a better person, a better teacher, a better father, a better human being when I embraced all of my students as my children or grandchildren and all of my neighbors as my friends.”

In making that statement, Henderson appeared to be swimming against the currents of Critical Race Theory and its tenets, including their recent application at OU.

While Henderson encouraged Oklahomans to treat each other as family, the University of Oklahoma mandated “diversity, equity, and inclusion” training for students during the 2020-21 school year that decried the concept of equality and even appeared to give implicit support for racial segregation at times.

One of the modules in OU’s “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” training declared, “In order to promote diversity we must proactively correct historical power imbalances. Equal treatment is not the same thing as equity.”

The training declared that equity “means fairness,” which it defined to include “giving everyone” the “guarantee” of “advancement for all.” The training then told students, “Equality is different—it means sameness, so treating people equally means treating everyone the same, whether or not that is fair.”

At another point, the training module asked students if they agreed with the statement, “Despite different starting points and privileges, we have equal opportunity, and if people work hard, they will be successful.” If students clicked a tab stating, “I agree,” they were then informed, “Equality of opportunity is the idea that every person has or should have the same access to the same opportunities. However, if we acknowledge that certain characteristics have been and remain more or less desirable in society, it is important that we also realize that individuals will experience the world differently based on those characteristics, effort notwithstanding.”

Another provision of OU’s “diversity, equity and inclusion” training for students appeared to endorse a soft form of racial segregation, telling white students to respect “spaces that are reserved for BIPOC people to discuss issues privately and safely.”

BIPOC is shorthand for “black, indigenous, people of color.”

A separate report issued by OU’s Gibbs College of Architecture vowed the school would teach white students “cultural humility.”

Henderson’s comments also contrasted with those of some prominent Critical Race Theory leaders, including Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist. Kendi has expressly written that “if racial discrimination is defined as treating, considering, or making a distinction in favor or against an individual based on that person’s race, then racial discrimination is not inherently racist.”

“The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination,” Kendi wrote. “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

Kendi was active in opposing a merit-based selection process for the Boston Latin School, the Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science after that process granted admission to the prestigious schools to a disproportionate share of Asian-descent applicants.

The contrast between the alleged “social injustices” of today and those faced by Henderson early in his career are stark.

When Henderson joined the OU faculty in 1967, he and his wife became the first African-American couple to purchase a home in Norman. Henderson said the realtor who sold him the house was soon forced out of business.

The early years of his tenure were marked by harsh, racist opposition.

“I had no idea that doing this thing would mean moving into your house and having garbage thrown on the lawn, obscene phone calls at all hours of the night, people driving by your house calling you and your children everything except something kind, police stopping me at night or in the day and asking why I was in ‘that neighborhood,’” Henderson said.

But he stressed that Oklahoma has changed dramatically in the years since, noting his own descendants are now multiracial.

“Oklahoma ain’t what it wants to be. It ain’t what it used to be. It ain’t what it’s gonna be,” Henderson said. “But when I look around this place called Oklahoma, I know that it’s better now than what it was, and this is our challenge: Let’s make it better.”

Henderson encouraged Oklahomans to not evaluate their state and its citizens through a prism of the worst parts of its history or the worst acts of certain individuals.

“History’s fine,” Henderson said. “Let’s understand the cruel things that happened. But don’t ever forget that some very good things have happened.”

Advancing Oklahoma is offered to the members of Leadership Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Academy, Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits, Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

Materials touting Advancing Oklahoma include numerous references to the importance of “equity,” a key term associated with Marxist-derived Critical Race Theory.

Paycom is the presenting sponsor for the event, while 12 other entities are listed as lower-tier sponsors.

In a March 3, 2020 letter to the University of Oklahoma’s board of regents written prior to imposition of the aforementioned “diversity, equity and inclusion” student training, Paycom CEO Chad Richison wrote to complain that the university’s “previous diversity training efforts failed because they assured free speech protection” and announced Paycom was yanking advertising from the school.

The Advancing Oklahoma session began with a disclaimer stating, “Sponsors and participating organizations are not responsible for and do not endorse any content published or disseminated at Advancing Oklahoma meetings or events. Sponsoring organizations take no responsibility for and make no endorsement of the materials, presentations, opinions, statements, articles, or social media postings of speakers or participants in Advancing Oklahoma.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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