This week’s 60th anniversary of the day nine African American students braved violent backlash and racist insults from whites in Little Rock, Arkansas to integrate Central High School, is prompting a wave of articles on the struggle for racial justice in American public education.
But while news outlets recall valiant efforts to integrate schools in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, they frame those efforts as mostly futile given the resurgence of segregation today: black communities, and now brown ones too, still have little control of their education destinies for very specific reasons.
Yet attempts to call out these reasons by name are all too rare.
A Lingering Odor
“Decades after ‘Little Rock Nine,’ school segregation lingers,” reports the Associated Press, as if segregation is some sort of residue from a toxic spill or a pungent odor left long after taking out the trash.
The events from Little Rock are presented to us in the abstract as “images” and “symbols” from the past, and we’re told the lessons to be learned from the events are about “how hard and difficult desegregation has been” and how “the debates remain complex, progress uneven, [and] answers elusive,” writes The Guardian.
But the story of Little Rock should not be confined to past tense, and its lesson is really pretty clear and simple.
As I reported about Little Rock a year ago, the fight for racial justice in its schools has never ended.
Where They Belong
Past attempts to keep black students in schools “where they belong” have now morphed into present-day efforts to “reform” district’s schools along exclusionary lines conceived by white politicians and the state’s economic power base of private foundations and wealthy businesses.
instead of using Jim Crow and white flight, or housing and highways, these new segregationists have other tools at their disposal.
I quoted local experts and government officials who explain how funding cuts to the district enacted by state lawmakers undermined the schools and left them strapped of necessary resources. The schools’ beleaguered conditions led to a state takeover of the district and the introduction of an aggressive charter school sector to compete with local public schools for resources and students.
I cited local observers and reporters who identify the powerful Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization connected to the family that owns the Walmart retail chain, as the controlling force governing Little Rock schools, rather than the citizens of Little Rock.
The truth of Little Rock repeats itself over and over in communities throughout the South and across the country.
More recently, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, researching a story about the current effort of the state to take over the local school district there, much in the same way Little Rock schools were taken over. Jackson is similar to Little Rock in that it is a school district populated predominantly by non-white students.
For two days, the Mississippi Department of Education staged a series of meetings that illustrated once again how white elites continue to define education opportunities for black and brown communities.
The racial symbolism of the events was inescapable.
MDE officials, who were predominantly white, presented their case in a room limited in seating and closed to the public over an hour prior to the meeting’s announced start time. Members of the State Accreditation Commission and the State Board of Education, who were predominantly white, decided the fate of Jackson schools in separate closed-door sessions completely sequestered from public view.
Some 100 local citizens, who were predominantly black, were relegated to an auditorium, where they watched events unfold on a live stream video that was often interrupted and garbled during transmission, and then they waited for hours to have decisions announced to them.
Local school officials, who had had a mere seven school days to muster a defense, presented detailed documentation of their recent and ongoing efforts to correct problems in the district, but the thick binders they presented were generally left unread on the meeting room tables as commission and board members convened in closed chambers to cast their votes.
Should the governor agree that Jackson schools are in a state of “extreme emergency,” as the state contends, the district’s school board is dissolved, the superintendent is dismissed, and an appointed conservator, reporting directly to the state Board of Education, is put in place to oversee the schools. In fact, the conservator has already been chosen.
The day the State Accreditation Committee decided to recommend takeover – a necessary step before proceeding to the Board of Education’s hearing the next day – Jackson’s recently elected progressive mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told those gathered on the sidewalk outside of MDE headquarters that they had just witnessed a “perfunctory exercise” in which “every commissioner who stepped into that room had already reached a decision.”
He declared “the burden of proof” in the state’s case “was not met.” And he called for ‘turn[ing] the page in Mississippi” and departing from the state’s history of denying black communities control of their schools. “We will not stand silently as they rob our children of an education.”
“This takes away the rights of the community,” local attorney and Jackson Public School parent Dorsey Carson said after the State Board of Education had made its recommendations for state takeover. “JPS parents were locked out of the process,” he told a small crowd gathered on the sidewalk after the board’s announcement. “Parents and children do not have a voice.”
It’s telling that while national news outlets issued their Little Rock retrospectives, none devoted even minimal reporting to the story happening in Jackson now.
Communities like Little Rock and Jackson show us that the rhetoric justifying white control of education for communities of color may have changed over the last 60 years, from calls for cultural purity and patriotism in the past to proclamations today about the need for “innovation” and “options.” But the results are the same: Black and brown communities still aren’t in control of where and how their children go to school because white people in charge of the system refuse to let them have it.