The Fifty Nifty United States: Arkansas

This is the fourth (4/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

This week marks the anniversary of the integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas, an event that endures in the American imagination as one of the most potent symbols of the mid-twentieth century struggle for Civil Rights. While the school district of Little Rock agreed to desegregate in 1957, in compliance with the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the segregationist Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, deployed the National Guard to prevent the school's integration. After a monthlong standoff, President Dwight Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to nationalize the Arkansas National Guard on September 24, clearing the way for the "Little Rock Nine" to integrate the school.

More than a half century after the forced integration of Little Rock High School, the personal prejudice that undergirded institutional racism persists in some corners. The town of Harrison, Arkansas has appeared in the news for its strong Ku Klux Klan presence and unwelcoming billboards, one of which reads "Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White." Despite these overt signs of prejudice in the farther flung regions of the state, Little Rock still struggles with the same problem that haunted the city in the 1950s: segregation. Alana Semuels of The Atlantic revisited Little Rock High School earlier this year:

In the decades since the schools were first integrated, Little Rock has become a more residentially segregated city, with white residents in the northwest part of town and blacks in the southwest and south. Because the vast majority of children attend schools in their neighborhood, the schools have become re-segregated too. And those separate schools are not at all equal. For example, 58 percent of the students at Roberts Elementary, located in northwest Little Rock, are white, though the district as a whole is just 18 percent white ... What’s stunning about today’s methods of avoiding integration is that they are, by and large, legal, but they nevertheless leave black students stuck in schools that are separate and unequal.

The ways in which personal choices and policy decisions reinforce these divisions are myriad. White families move to the suburbs, start their own schools, and live in racially isolated parts of the city. The school system routinely spends more money on the upkeep of schools that serve White children. Real estate agents continue to steer people to racially homogenous neighborhoods, and the siting of public housing projects reinforces existing segregation patterns. Moreover, while charter schools in other states tend to serve higher proportions of students of color, many charters in Arkansas serve White families who are further segregating themselves from Black children, even though the traditional schools already are segregated.

The continued segregation of Little Rock, and its schools, indicates that public policy and personal preference continue to conspire to maintain segregation. These patterns also demonstrate the extent to which public schooling, housing, and transportation priorities engage in patterns of mutual reinforcement over time. While it would be unfair to declare that race relations in America have not changed since the 1950s, one cannot look at the data undergirding contemporary racial disparities and segregation without acknowledging the ephemerality of whatever progress we've made.


"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.