Sixty years ago, the “Little Rock Nine,” a group of nine black students, walked up the steps of the historic and all-white Little Rock Central High School. Many schools had been integrated long before the groundbreaking court case Brown vs. the Board of Education, but those cities tended to be in the North, where de facto segregation was less of an issue. In the South, it remained a large issue even into the 1960s and 1970s, and still is today.
In fact, many schools all over the country are still segregated, or have become segregated. An Associated Press article from Monday September 25
What the article points out, and what is very troubling, is that the Little Rock School District—taken over by the state in 2015 because of failing schools—is still segregated. Or, perhaps more accurately, has become re-segregated. The district is two-thirds black, and according to the Associated Press charter schools have only increased the segregation by giving students options to switch schools.
I take issue with that statement, though. All students have the option to switch schools and go to charter schools—black students, Hispanic students, white students, you name it. It’s not as if only white students are going to these charter schools or only white students are allowed to attend these charter schools.
However, that is not to disparage the fact that indeed, most black students go to schools where blacks and whites are grossly unequal in number. According to the AP article, “The average black student nationwide in 1980 went to a school that was 36 percent white. In the 2014-15 school year, a black student would have gone to a school that was 27 percent white.” I find this interesting. This implies—though certainly does not confirm—that schools were in fact at least somewhat more integrated 35 or 40 years ago than they are now. This makes sense to me, and I can see why it might be so. Busing explains a lot of it.
My 1977 Little Rock Central High School yearbook is quite a feat—college-sized and more detailed than most high school yearbooks I’ve come across. It also repeatedly lauds itself on being integrated and having no racial tension. ABC reporter Geraldo Rivera visited the school in the fall of 1976 to report on this, and a New York Times article published around the same time called Central a “model” of desegregation for other schools to follow. Students are also quoted as saying there is no racial tension at Central.
These things surprised me when I first read them—not that I don’t want to believe there wasn’t racial tension, but because this was Little Rock, a district that had only formulated and put into place a school integration plan in 1973. This plan involved busing for students of all grades.
My 1977 yearbook shows a senior class that is rather equal in terms of black and white students. The same goes for the other two grades; blacks and whites are largely equal. The yearbook itself stated that that year, 1976-77, was the first year blacks had become the majority at the school. Indeed, as of 1977 the demographics of the district were 52 percent black and 48 percent white. Had Little Rock’s desegregation plan actually worked?
Perhaps it had, but only because of busing. White flight made it unsuccessful. In subsequent years black students began to outnumber whites largely because white families fled to nicer areas of the city and to suburbs. This happened in many cities in the South (and even in the North). Certainly it happened in St. Louis, Kansas City, Tulsa, and Memphis. The results have been the same: schools in these cities have, in the past 20 (and even 30 and 40) years, become largely re-segregated. In Little Rock in 2013, the district was made up of about 19 percent white, 67 percent black, and 11 percent Hispanic students. In 2016 the number of white students dropped to 18 percent, according to an article in The Atlantic Monthly.
In Tulsa, whites fled beginning in the late 1960s and especially in the 1970s when schools began to be integrated, and while the district’s demographics as of 2016 are more evenly distributed than Little Rock’s—25 percent white, 25 percent black, 33 percent Hispanic, with other minorities in smaller numbers—individual schools have vastly different demographics. Hale High School has 43 percent Hispanic, 21 percent white, and 20 percent black students. Further north, McLain High School, which takes students from a largely African-American-populated area, has 57 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic, and seven percent white students. Other schools such as Memorial and Webster are more evenly distributed; but Edison High School, historically and still in a fairly well-off mostly-white area, has 48 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent black students.
McLain’s numbers stick out the most, but they are not surprising. The north area of Tulsa has historically been poorer than the south, and as blacks began moving north after housing desegregation, many whites fled south and to the suburbs, resulting in northern neighborhoods becoming largely black (and now, to some extent, Hispanic). While Tulsa did make Booker T. Washington, its historically “black” high school, into a magnet school for blacks and whites, it also used busing like many other districts.
White students do indeed tend to go to schools that are primarily white. This has been going on for years, ever since the Supreme Court ordered school integration. Should it be happening? No. But can we stop it from happening?
The government can’t. Busing in Tulsa continued until the 1980s, and when it was finally stopped, what happened? What we see now: kids attended neighborhood schools, resulting in segregated schools. The same thing happened in Little Rock. What it all comes down to is segregated housing.
I don’t mean real estate brokers who won’t serve minority families, as in the 1950s. I mean self-imposed segregated housing; what has been going on since the 1960s. This is something no government can fix. Only we ourselves, we the people, can fix this.
Why do we segregate ourselves? Partly because being with people who are familiar is “comfortable.” However, I’ve gone to school with many minority students—not as many as others have, but a good amount—and I’m comfortable around minorities. What I am not comfortable around are people who break laws or act violently, regardless of race. Without getting into a big discussion of crime rates in the U.S., I want to point out that this is important to think about.
This is too: maybe our self-imposed segregation is less about race and more about class. It makes sense, at least to explain segregation in the 21st century.
People live where they want to live; it doesn’t mean they hate people they don’t live around. However, neighborhoods do remain segregated, partly because of race but also because of class. Middle-class whites don’t mind living next door to middle-class blacks; they do mind living next-door to poor people who often do not maintain their homes. Some neighborhoods have more expensive houses than others; those who can’t afford those houses buy in less expensive areas. Violent crime tends to be higher in these lower-income areas than in higher-income areas (not always, but often). No one wants to be around violent crime, but the poorer people in these neighborhoods don’t have enough money to leave. So they stay. And meanwhile, middle- and upper-class people form their own neighborhoods and don’t go near the bad ones. This thinking is the root of the problem: “I don’t want to be like those people.”
A quote from the AP article on Little Rock’s desegregation struck me: “’They’re [the Little Rock Nine] coming back to visit to see what? They can visit any number of schools where there isn’t any hint of desegregation,’ state Sen. Joyce Elliott, a Democrat from Little Rock, said . . . . ‘For the Little Rock Nine to come back to the same place where they started and the schools are under state control now . . . I think that is something that is the ultimate embarrassment for the state. That is not something to be celebrated.’”
Indeed. And perhaps it should be the ultimate embarrassment for us too, for segregation only starts with we the people.
This is a huge issue. At its core it is an issue of the human heart, not of government laws or court orders. Change can only begin when we change our hearts—which, though not easy, is still entirely possible—and reflect that change in our attitudes, actions and words.