A Black Democrat and a White Republican Cross Party Lines to Improve Race Relations

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - A black Democrat and a white Republican are crossing party lines to improve race relations in Arkansas. 

State senators Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, and Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, said they're the perfect example of how opposites attract: black and white, woman and man, Democrat and Republican.  

"We grew up in very different environments, but we're friends," Elliott said. "And sometimes we would talk about these things honestly with one another."

"One of the things I appreciate about Sen. Elliott is though we do come from various backgrounds, as different as the could be, we still have a great relationship and have learned to communicate with each other," Hendren said. 

That's the model these colleagues are using to examine racial tensions in the state. They plan to form a legislative subcommittee, working with the community to find real solutions on everything from education to jobs to crime.  

"It is unacceptable that we just have this scar on our history, and we let it lie just beneath the surface," Elliott said. 

"I think that Republicans are becoming more aware of the fact that we need to not be viewed as the party who doesn't care about race relations," Hendren said. "There are a lot of Republicans who share my concern, particularly those of us who have been out and seen the value that good race relations can bring." 

However, when Sen. Elliott presented the subcommittee idea to fellow lawmakers, they shot it down.  

"We thought, 'We've got all the demographics covered. Let's do this,'" Elliott said. "But we were not met with a lot of positive response when we presented it to the executive committee. I thought maybe I might hear from people who had issues with it, but I haven't." 

"People like to talk about each other and not to each other," Hendren said. "And that's what we're going to work on."
 
The two lawmakers can't take no for an answer when they know there's a real problem.

"Most people don't realize that most of what divides us right now was done deliberately for us to be divided," Elliott said. 

The senator referenced I-630 destroying 9th Street in Little Rock and housing loans separating the races.

"We can never be what we want to be and should be if we don't do something about the divisions that divide us by race and economics," Elliott said. "It just smothers so much of our possibility because we're living apart from one another in so many ways. We're not going to school together, we're not going to church together. We don't have understandings."

Elliott and Hendren agreed one of the most divisive issues in the state is education, nearly 60 years after the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High School. 

Hendren referred to it as resegregation. 

"There's great disparities that exist that we need to figure out how to fix, why those disparities are there and how can we not bring others down but bring everybody up," he said. 

"I am stunned the extent to which we go to not have our kids learn and play and socialize together, but we do," Elliott said. "We have to be intentional about change for that. What are you willing to do to make sure all kids have an opportunity? Care about your child, care about your family. But know our responsibility does not end at our front door. It just does not. There's a whole big world when your child opens that door."  

Hendren said he and his 134 colleagues in the state legislature have recently made bipartisan moves to improve race relations, like splitting up the long-debated Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee holidays.

However, the two senators agree there are still many more conversations to be had. The problem is getting everyone in the same room. 

"It's going to be both sides realizing we may have to give a little on some of the things we care about," Hendren said. "And then we can move forward together." 

"Not to feel intimidated that you're going to say something wrong because you are," Elliott said. "That has nothing to do with which race or ethnic group you are because we haven't lived and socialized among each other enough not to say something wrong from time to time in these difficult conversations." 


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