60 Years after Little Rock Nine, Experts Say LR School Segregation Persists

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The city of Little Rock's population, at last estimates by the American Community Survey, break down to 42 percent white and 48 percent African American. But demographics of the Little Rock School District show a picture that is not nearly representative of the city as a whole. 

As the city commemorates efforts of the Little Rock Nine and the courage they showed 60 years ago during the desegregation of Central High School, the realities inside the school district today have some wondering if we've seen a resegregation of schools that is purposeful and system. 

During the 2016-2017 school year, the Little Rock School District reported that just 18 percent of its enrollment population was composed of white students. Hispanic students made up 14 percent, while black students comprised 64 percent of the population. In the 2004-2005 school year, whites made up 24 percent of the student population.

Thirty-six of the district's schools today have students bodies that are more than 80 percent minority; of those, 30 schools have populations that are 90 percent minority or more. Three schools are majority white, and just eight schools are anywhere close to representing the actual racial breakdown of the city. 

To see the breakdown of schools and their data, click here or check out the map below.

"We're going back more and more it seems to a system that looks more and more like it looked like in the mid-1950s before this whole process began," said John Kirk, UALR Professor of History and Director of the Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity.

The goals of the Little Rock Nine, and the Supreme Court decisions that resulted in desegregation, were the concepts of bringing African American students into white classrooms to combat the drastic under investment and unequal education that was happening in black only schools. 

The Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, reasoned that cities and communities would continue investing in schools that way, because even if they were only motivated by protecting white students' interests, black students who were in classes along with those white students would still benefit from additional resources. 

"One might argue, if you look at the city today, that's again what resegregation is producing are schools which are predominantly African-American that are under-invested in and those which are predominantly white and are more invested in," Kirk said. "

Some experts like Kirk, though, say modern geographic segregation shows change and progress are two different concepts. And that segregation is a systemic, structural issue in our society. 

"Everyone wants their own neighborhood school. Well, you know if the city worked for decades and decades and spent millions of dollars to create a segregated city and segregated neighborhoods, then of course neighborhood schools are going to be segregated," Kirk said. 

According to Kirk, who has studied the history of Little Rock and society in the city after the Little Rock Nine, city leaders began almost immediately to find ways to continue to segregate the city. Those included using federal housing programs to build "white only" government housing in West Little Rock, while building "black only" public housing in the eastern part of the city. 

"In the school suits in the 1980's, B.  Finley Vinson, who is in charge of some city policy said in court that, 'Yes we did all these things with the express intention of creating a more segregated city.' The people who did this stood up in court and admitted to it as part of court testimony," Kirk said.

"There's no ambiguity in that, right? You know - those people have fully admitted to doing it. The question is - on one side people say all those things have been changed and those things don't happen anymore. That's a debate in its own right as to whether those things do happen anymore or not, but the consequences of those illegal and unconstitutional actions still profoundly shape the city today."

Mortgage lenders would refuse to approve mortgages for African Americans seeking to buy homes in certain areas of the city that were predominantly white. Real estate agents would encourage white families to move to only certain neighborhoods, avoiding downtown, urban neighborhoods.

The construction of Interstate 630, Kirk said, also served to create a physical and symbolic barrier in the city. To construct it, long-standing, black neighborhoods were razed, and the construction of the interstate served as a bypass, allowing white families to trek westward away from integrated neighborhoods. 

"The way we have reached these segregated neighborhoods and the policies that were followed by the city to implement segregation were declared unconstitutional and declared illegal," he said. "And yet, we still live with the consequences of those unconstitutional and illegal practices that were put in place that still very much structure the city today. So, even though the laws have now been put in place to protect against those unconstitutional actions, we still live with the consequences of those now-unconstitutional laws."

When asked whether segregated neighborhoods are inherently a problem or pose issues in the community, Kirk noted that segregated neighborhoods tend to arise and provide access to resources for some while eliminating access for others. While seeking out a segregated neighborhood, which might be "safer" or have "more resources" or "better schools," Kirk pointed out that those benefits to namely white individuals make them beneficiaries of a system based initially on racial segregation.

"One of the difficulties is that people can convince themselves that they're not acting in a racist way. They say, 'We're just wanting to move to this neighborhood, and there's nothing racist about that. We just want access to better resources,'" Kirk said. "But of course, those choices are based on a past and inherited past of racism that has provided very different wealth disparities between African Americans and whites that allows whites to make those choices and benefit from those resources." 

Over the years, as this geographic segregation has taken place, the proportion of white students in the Little Rock school district has continued to decline. Private schools and charter schools within Little Rock have offered families a way to segregate themselves further outside the school system. According to Kirk, admitting that this is taking place, and being willing to change it, could be difficult for city officials and particularly for those currently benefiting from the structure of things today.

"Just because you don't practice racism today doesn't mean you don't benefit from the racism that has been practiced in the past. We have 250 years of slavery, 60-70 years of explicit segregation," Kirk said. "African-Americans have only achieved equality under the law within the last 50 years of the long history of the nation, and that has massive consequences."

Research shows that there is a strong correlation between the level of segregation and the achievement gap between white and black students. The more segregated a district is, the wider the gap, with white students faring better than black students.

"If you're a beneficiary of past injustices, then that's what you want to do, of course, you want to keep those accumulated privileges that you have that are unearned. You don't want to give those up," Kirk said. "That's always been the case - slave holders didn't want to free their slaves because they benefited economically from holding them. But yet, America addressed the moral implications, political and economical implications of that and addressed it. It took a Civil War to address those issues. America has never shied away before from having the moral courage to do it - it's rediscovering the moral courage and vision to be able to do that ." 


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