Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Racial Conflict in Little Rock?

Via the Corner, here's a very odd story from the New York Times, that tries to generate racial conflict where none seems to exist:
Fifty years after the epic desegregation struggle at Central High School, the school district here is still riven by racial conflict, casting a pall on this year’s ambitious commemorative efforts.

Roy Brooks, the superintendent of schools in Little Rock, Ark., in his office. Mr. Brooks has received criticism and support for cutting jobs and closing some schools.
In the latest clash, white parents pack school board meetings to support the embattled superintendent, Roy Brooks, who is black. The blacks among the school board members look on grimly, determined to use their new majority to oust him. Whites insist that test scores and enrollment have improved under the brusque, hard-charging Mr. Brooks; blacks on the board are furious that he has cut the number of office and other non-teaching jobs and closed some schools.

The fight is all the more disturbing to some here because it erupted just as a federal judge declared Little Rock’s schools finally desegregated, 50 years after a jeering white mob massed outside Central High to turn back integration.

In 1957, the fight was over whether nine black students could attend an entirely white high school. Now it is over whether the city’s black leaders can exert firm control over the direction and perquisites of an urban school district in the way that white leaders did for decades. When Mr. Brooks, who declined a request for an interview, cut 100 jobs, he saved money but earned the fierce ill will of many other blacks, who see the district as an important source of employment and middle-class stability.
On its face, this story doesn't seem to be about "racial conflict," which I would define to mean not "any conflict on which black people happen to have an opinion" but "conflict specifically about the issue of race."

I find it troubling that journalists seem to think that every conflict in Little Rock has to be shoehorned into the narrative of what happened in 1957. In 1957, whites protested the admission of 9 black students to Little Rock's Central High, and Eisenhower had to call out the 101st Airborne Division to protect the black students. (Worth reading: Melba Pattillo Beals' "Warriors Don't Cry." She recalls white students pushing her down the stairwell, throwing eggs, and on one occasion, trying to throw battery acid in her eyes.)

What's happening today is light years removed from 1957. No one is rioting in the streets or throwing eggs or in need of protection from the Army. Instead, whites actually support a black superintendent, while some blacks oppose him because he has cut the number of jobs. This doesn't strike me as a genuine "racial conflict." Instead, as Jay Greene points out, it looks more like patronage vs. education:
Jay P. Greene, head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, said in an interview that Little Rock’s scores had been improving, like scores around the state, though pushing them up in a troubled urban district “itself is an achievement.”

* * *

He [the superintendent] is “a person who doesn’t identify with black people at all,” said John Walker, a Little Rock civil rights lawyer who represents black students in the court case, which he has appealed. “The only thing he stands for is putting black people down.”

Though many whites hail the cuts in administration — a legislative study found it “terribly bloated,” a lawmaker said — Ms. Mitchell, the board president, said of them angrily: “African-American employees have lost $918,000,” and she enumerated positions lost or downgraded. Many whites laud the closing of the three schools with low attendance.

Dr. Greene, of the University of Arkansas, said he feared that the dispute was really about patronage, not educational quality. “I think it would be hard to make strong criticisms of the superintendent on educational grounds,” he said.
To be fair, it's not just the New York Times: As can be seen in the quotes above, a few Little Rock residents are trying to stir up racial tension. But when a black superintendent cuts a few unnecessary jobs from a "bloated" administration -- presumably so that resources can be focused on students rather than bureaucrats -- it doesn't seem fair for anyone to suggest that he stands for "putting black people down." Those sorts of criticisms should have been treated with more skepticism by the New York Times. Instead, the Times framed the entire story as an example of "racial conflict" akin to 1957.



Blogger Daniel said...

Once one of friends on EbonyFriends.com told me the story that you wrotein the article. I am sure the story is about race.

1:22 AM  

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