Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Is Oklahoma ok?

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at the University of Oklahoma was shut down this week after a video of members of the fraternity chanting racial slurs hit the Internet.  CNN's story about the incident is here.

The CNN story has a number of quotes from University of Oklahoma President David Boren, a former Oklahoma governor and senator.  President Boren is quoted as saying that it was "unbelievable that this could have possible occurred" with OU students and that "Sooners are not racists. They're not bigots." I hope that is true but some might suggest that the video indicates otherwise.

But if President Boren's statement is true, it has not been true for all that long in the scheme of things. Until 1948, it was illegal for African-Americans to attend the University of Oklahoma. Given the year, one might think that Jackie Robinson's integration of Major League Baseball in 1947 inspired the end of segregation at OU.  But one would be wrong.  

Instead, the University of Oklahoma was integrated because the Supreme Court ordered the University of Oklahoma to admit Ada Sipuel to the university's law school.  The case is Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, 332 U.S. 631 (1948).  You can read the decision here.

One thing you might notice in the Sipuel, is that the Court's order does not mandate that OU start admitting African-Americans. Instead, the school will have to admit Ms. Sipuel. The reason for this is because the Sipuel decision is premised on the separate but equal doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson. Oklahoma ran afoul of the doctrine by not providing African-Americans with an in-state legal education. Stuff You Missed in History Class did a podcast on this subject just a few episodes ago. It is worth a listen and you can download it here. Because segregation was still legal, once she was admitted to the OU law school, Ms. Sipuel was forced to sit in a chair in the back of the classroom that had a sign on it which said "Colored." Ms. Sipuel also had to sit in a different part of the cafeteria. This practice did not change until 1950, when another African American student, George McLaurin, sued that treatment.  Mr. McLaurin's case also went to the Supreme Court and in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950), the Supreme Court held that segregation in professional or post graduate schools was unconstitutional.  You can read about Ms. Sipuel and Mr. McLaurin at the Oklahoma Historical Society webpage on integration.  

Finally, it is interesting to note that two future Supreme Court justices were at the Sipuel Supreme Court oral argument in 1948. Thurgood Marshall argued Ms. Sipuel's case. Among those watching the arguments was John Paul Stevens, who was clerking for Justice Wiley Rutledge.  Justice Stevens spoke about the Sipuel oral argument at an ABA awards dinner in 2005. You can read his remarks here.     

A lot has changed in the sixty-plus years since Ms. Sipuel had her case decided.  And the swift reaction by President Boren shows that attitudes about racial bigotry have changed. But as the video shows, we still have a ways to go in eliminating racial bias.

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