Arkansas desegregation decision marks end of an era

Opinion

Ever since the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Little Rock, Arkansas has been a crucial battleground in the fight for desegregation in this country. That’s why it’s big news that District Court judge D. Price Marshall accepted a settlement agreement among the state of Arkansas, the attorneys representing black students, and three separate school districts.

The terms of the settlement mean that the state of Arkansas will be able to stop payments meant to aid desegregation.  The settlement agreement requires the state to continue the payments only until the 2017-2018 academic year.  The aid amounted to $70 million this year alone, but with the long-running dispute over the funding, that has lasted nearly three decades, the current state of the schools in and around Arkansas is less than ideal. Despite having several affluent schools in the area, many black students have been forced to go to inadequate schools with racial imbalance.

According to the New York Times, “The case settled on Monday can be traced back to [1957], though the lineage is complicated by different lawsuits, expanding groups of plaintiffs and defendants, and changes in the remedies being sought.  At that time, President Dwight D. Eisenhower intervened by deploying federal troops to facilitate the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.

The state was required to send the desegregation funding but instead of improving the racial makeup of the students in and around Little Rock, the end result was a massive exodus of white families from these school districts.  Late last  year John Walker, a lawyer representing the black students, told NPR, “This is not a joyful day for African-American people in America.  The only thing that’s been achieved here is that the laws are gone. There’s nothing that overtly allows students to be segregated in classes or in schools on the basis of race. What we have is a legal system that has now been replaced by a de facto system.”

State officials are celebrating the settlement, with the Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel calling the deal “historic” and sending a tweet declaring the “case closed.”  According to McDaniel, “There was a purpose to this litigation and there was a justification for the money.  But with a deal that had no ending date incorporated in it and a very nebulous description of its goals, we had to look at the reality and say it’s time to bring it to the end.”

The debate over the settlement is sure to last as long as the case itself.  The fact that there is a huge achievement gap between white and black students is evidence of the continuing need for funding that evens out the playing field for all students, but funding opponents successfully argued that the learning environment for students has sufficiently improved, making desegregation funding unnecessary.

Despite the agreement not including the funding that the attorneys representing the black students say is necessary, they agreed to the terms of the settlement, putting an end to a fight that has lasted for thirty years.  The focus now turns to the students of Little Rock and how they will respond to these important funding changes coming just a few years down the road and whether the removal of funding to integrate Little Rock’s schools will send the city back into the unequal reality of a generation ago.

Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @ZerlinaMaxwell.