We like to think we’ve come a long way since the Little Rock Nine in 1957, where nine African-American students needed a protective escort of troops from the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to safely enter newly integrated Central High School. But nearly 54 years later, the desegregation fight in Little Rock, Arkansas continues.
This week, a federal appeals court will hear arguments over whether three Arkansas school districts should continue receiving tax dollars for desegregation. The three school districts are Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County. The extra money going to these school districts, including famed Central High School, for the purpose of funding desegregation may be cut if the federal court rules that funding is not necessary for these districts to achieve racial parity. These school districts were once predominately white, but after the 1957 and related subsequent decisions, white flight, and forced busing, currently all three are predominantly African-American.
It’s particularly sad that over 50 years, after the Little Rock Nine and Brown v. Board of Education schools could go right back the pre-civil rights segregated class rooms so many fought and died to end. In May, U.S. District Court Judge Brian Miller, a conservative selected by George W. Bush, “found the payments were “proving to be an impediment to ‘true desegregation’ by rewarding school systems that don’t meet their long-standing commitments.”
The payments to these school districts have totaled $1 billion over the past 50 years.
The issue is whether schools should continue to receive tax dollars as a reward for desegregation. The funding goes to busing and implementation of these desegregation programs. Critics point to the disparity in test scores between white and black students as evidence that the forced desegregation rules are failing children. The argument against the funding is that the school districts have figured out how to delay desegregation in order to accept the funding.
Judge Miller said of this failure, ”[t]he districts are wise mules that have learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job,” he wrote. “The time has finally come for all carrots to be put away.”
There is no question that a decision to stop the desegregation funding to the same Little Rock school districts which played such an important role in American history is a reflection of progress towards equitable distribution being an ongoing process that does not end with one triumph.
Dr. Blair M. Kelley, a professor of History at North Carolina State told TheGrio, while it’s sad that “we still need remedies after all this time. Temporary intervention [during the Civil Rights era] was important but the fact that it has to be kept in place is a sad legacy of the Civil Rights movement…Most Americans think history is a continuous march towards progress where we can stop [with each achievement]. Sometimes we slide back and we have to be vigilant from allowing that to happen.”
Dr. Kelley points out that the danger is without vigilant activism we can move backwards and while the goal should be ”[e]qual access [for all students] to resources [which does] go beyond the question of race…white supremacy and racial segregation are very real” blemishes on American history that have a real world impact that should not be discounted.
One recent step backwards was when desegregation was an issue taken up by the Supreme Court under Justice John Roberts as recently as 2007, in a case out of Seattle with voluntary integration at issue. In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle, Roberts wrote for the majority, that desegregation did not constitute a “compelling state interest” and assigning children to a particular district in order to promote racial integration and racial balancing was unconstitutional.
In recent years, a number of federal courts have ruled school districts officially “desegregated” thereby cutting off funding. The problem with this is that many of these districts need the funding in order to avoid devolving back into racial segregation harkening back to pre-Brown America.
Dr. Ron Daniels, former Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and professor of political science at CUNY’s York College told TheGrio, that while Little Rock “played such incredible role in history” the wave of conservative judges on the federal bench during the Bush administration has lead to a line of thinking that “racial remedies [are no longer] the way to achieve [educational] equity.”
At the time the 1957 Little Rock decision was handed down the thinking was “desegregation was the path to equity” for African-American students. The danger with this current case before the 8th circuit is not only the “historical backdrop, [but the removal] of resources to poor performing schools on the basis of the integrative processes not moving forward as mandated.”
Dr. Daniels says, “equitable distribution of resources” rather than a focus on desegregation should be the goal. So while Little Rock is an important part of history, it’s clear current conservative courts have rejected the use of race or racial remedies.”
The three Little Rock districts at issue are now predominately black and underperforming. Stripping the funding from these schools no matter what the reason, whether it be because desegregation is no longer a goal or because the districts have been slow on the uptake implementing the federal mandate, will be damaging to children.
Carlos Gonzelez a Professor of Constitutional Law at Rutgers Law School told TheGrio, in the past “federal courts may have been more receptive to desegregation cases than is the case today. The®e-segregation of public schools in many parts of the country is the norm, not the exception, and had been for some time now. Re-segregation in Little Rock, however, would have to be considered particularly noteworthy, given its role in the history of the desegregation effort.”