Tuesday, September 25, 2007

50 years ago today . . .

. . . some kids went to their new school for the first time.

NPR has already had several stories about the Little Rock Nine and plans to have some more throughout the year.

Some comments about my daughters' small participation in the legacy of that day below the fold.

I know what I said in my previous post, but this morning I saw the above picture over at Washington Monthly and couldn't stop thinking about how that day seems simultaneously so distant, for me, and so Now for my daughters.

There's more than one way to integrate a school system, and Mobile (where my children live) has chosen a combination of gerrymandered school boundaries and a magnet school program in which students' parents express their interest in participating and are selected by lottery. They get to remain in the magnet program by maintaining a "C" average, but they're initially selected according to a complex system of ratios, one of which is race. I have no idea whether this plan would pass constitutional muster in light of the recent Supreme Court decisions regarding the Louisville and Seattle desegregation plans, but it seems to me that the facts that the only kids in the magnet schools are those whose parents want them to be there and who continue to do well academically would be points in its favor. Moreover, I know that far more kids, white and black, want to be in the magnet program than there is room to accommodate them (academically, the schools are among the very best in the state, public or private), and that my daughters' mother and I are thrilled that they are lucky enough to be in it.

But. Though the public schools there are, de jure, integrated, education in Mobile remains segregated. The public schools have majority black and other minority populations; a large number of private schools, most of them run by conservative Protestant churches, are mostly white. Thw official reason these "academies" exist is that the public schools have become "Godless," but no doubt the nearly-concurrent appearance of court-mandated school desegregation gave some folks added impetus to push their churches to establish them. Mobile, a city with deep Catholic roots, also has a large parochial school system that has existed since the city's earliest days--that system is more balanced.

Both my daughters have close friends at school who are African-American. Their being in the magnet program of course has something to do with that; they also have their mother's example: she has several close friends who are black and whom she sees socially. But my older daughter recently had to defend one of her black friends from the racial slurs of another person--someone she had also considered her friend. And that's something that has struck me about what happened at Little Rock, by some accounts one of the more socially-integrated cities in the South back in the '50s, as I've listened to some of the NPR stories and looked at the picture here: race is indeed still a faultline in this country, but one of the paradoxes of the post-civil rights movement is that it's harder now to see what might or might not trigger rumblings along that faultline. What's happening in Jena, Louisiana, is not the sort of thing I'm referring to here: one can't get much more blatant than hanging nooses from a tree without actually putting someone's head in those nooses. I mean all that history and fear and prejudice and hatred and misunderstanding that still sits below the surface of not just Southern but American life--sometimes waiting quietly, a sort of Pavlovian response that suddenly lunges out and that people don't "really mean;" sometimes seething.


Winston said...

Many cities across the country and most cities in the South have a large number of non-Catholic private schools that did not exist before court-ordered de-segregation. It does not take a rocket scientist or a Harvard PhD in sociology...

While there are still isolated pockets of blatant racism in the deep South, experience of the last 50 years has shifted most of the country from being split along racial lines to being separated by class distinctions. When we have blacks and other minorities in top jobs of government at all levels, and in the boardroom and top decision making positions of business and education and military and sports and entertainment, and working in the next cubicle or office or even in the corner office as our supervisors, and living next door as peers in suburban settings... whatever inequalities and problems still exist are more along class lines and not due to racial prejudice.

And no, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick and Pacman Jones, it's not about race anymore. Don't play that race card. It just doesn't wash anymore. It's about multi-millionaire spoiled brats that don't know how to behave and get along in an America that has embraced them and enriched them.

There, now, I feel better...

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by, Winston.

I agree with you that pure, unadulterated racism--that is, behavior driven by a belief in the inferiority/superiority of certain groups of people--is thankfully rare nowadays. Racist assumptions, though, are not, and I think you're right that, more often than not, when those attitudes manifest themselves they serve as masks for other prejudices and jealousies and fears, usually economic ones. But what gives those assumptions such power when they're made, no matter who makes it or whether those assumptions are justified, is precisely that old, ugly legacy.

The whole point of remembering that legacy is not to rehash it but to ensure it never happens again--to not go there, but in the positive sense of that now-hackneyed phrase: to see it in our collective rear-view mirror.

Winston said...

We're totally in-sync on this difficult issue, John. When I left the earlier remark, I unfortunately used the forum to dump about a related subject that is bugging me. To wit -- it seems like almost every time a person of color makes a mistake or screws up or gets caught doing something wrong or performs below expectations, they scream "racism". That is in no way constructive for them or for the relationship between races. It simply serves as an all too convenient smoke screen in which to hide and avoid taking responsibility and accountability for their own lives.

I think I just did it again...

R. Sherman said...

Here at my firm, we thought about this yesterday, too. The founding partner here, Charles Matthes, was appointed to the Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis by President Eisenhower. His first opinion dealt with the Little Rock School District in a case where the district wanted to postpone compliance with the Supreme Court directive to integrate Central High, because of the potential for violence. None of the other judges on the court wanted to write it so he did, basically saying, "No. There's no provision for ignoring the Supreme Court, so get to it."

Thus did the 82nd Airborne show up.


R. Sherman said...

Some language from Matthes' opinion:

“The issue plainly comes down to the question of whether overt public resistance, including mob protest, constitutes sufficient cause to nullify an order of the federal courts directing the Board to proceed with its integration plan. We say the time has not yet come in these United States when an order of a Federal Court must be whittled away, watered down or shamefully withdrawn in the face of violent and unlawful acts of individual citizens in opposition thereto."

Sorry for the double and long comment.


John B. said...

Thanks to both of you for your comments.

Winston: I hear you.

I need to be getting ready for school instead of doing this--and I'm still officially away from here--but I'll just quickly say for now in response to Randall's quoting of the passage from Matthes' decision that I couldn't help but hear a bit of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" in that language: chiefly, that pursuing and acting on just principles cannot be done only when convenient or easy.