Politics & Policy

Between a Little Rock and a Hard Place

Race at Central High, again.

The most distinctive thing about Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later, a documentary that debuted Tuesday night on HBO, is that it actually adds something valuable to the discussion about race and education. Worthwhile contributions to that discussion are all too rare.

Fifty years ago this week, Little Rock Central High School was integrated when nine black students were escorted to class by federal troops. The film puts a modern lens on a place that most Americans know only through history. Of course, for the families, students, and teachers whose lives revolve around Central’s daily operations, the school doesn’t exist in the past — it exists as an American high school facing the same problems as others around the country.

Filmmakers Brent and Craig Renaud, Little Rock natives, seem to understand that. Their opening footage from 1957, of an angry white mob, quickly shifts to footage from 2007. And that’s where the story stays; rather than dwell in the past, the Renauds are concerned with the present, and with the possible future.

What becomes quickly apparent is that Central High is racially divided. Comparisons to the racial divisions of 1957, however, are illogical. No angry white mobs agglomerate in the parking lots after class, no one shouts racial epithets, no politicians go on television to support segregation. Racism as a respectable ideology is gone.

And so what we don’t learn from the documentary is that white students and black students at Central don’t get along. When we do see white and black students interacting, the relations are positive. Thing is, we don’t see white and black students interacting all that much. And therein lies the new separation at Central High — a self-imposed segregation that plays out in the hallways, the cafeteria, the buses, and the classrooms.

Distressing? Perhaps. But as sundry students point out, “that’s just the way it is.” In this way, they are perhaps wiser than Central’s principal, Nancy Rousseau, who announces at the start of one school day that it will be “mix-up day.” She then walks around at lunchtime, prodding kids to eat their sandwiches next to someone of a different race. Lots of eyes are rolled.

A more serious problem is that black students at Central High are, by and large, not enrolled in the rigorous AP classes. They are, by and large, doing a lot worse academically than their white peers. The civil rights struggle of Central High circa 2007, thus, is much the same as that of other schools across the land: closing the achievement gap.

We meet Antron, an 18-year-old black male who aspires to be a boxer and cannot read. He’s failing all his classes, mostly because he declines to show up for them, which means he will have to repeat ninth-grade — again. Sadly, it’s likely that he will drop out.

Not all of Antron’s problems are of his own making, of course. We learn that his mom abruptly kicked him out of the house, and that he had to move-in with his sister. Indeed, such stories abound at Central High, and some of their details are much more distressing than familial discord and an unexpected change of address. A teacher asks her students how many have had a family member in jail and all the black hands in the class shoot up. One student in that class recounts how his brother was killed: tied-up, beaten, and set on fire.

It’s troubling that 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds have to deal with such nasty facets of humanity. It’s troubling that many of them have parents who are not around, or are on drugs, or are incarcerated, or simply don’t care what happens to their children at school.

It’s troubling, but it’s happening. The challenge for public schools is dealing with it: taking students as they are, asking them to leave their traumatic problems at the school door, giving them everyday a rigorous education, and accepting no excuses.

Such a prescription, some say, flies in the face of reality. That’s wrong. Such a prescription is the only realistic way to help the neediest students. The alternative — hoping for blighted neighborhoods to heal, for broken families to rekindle, for crime to stop — is not only unrealistic but also immoral. How many kids get sacrificed while we wait and wait?

And yet, what we see at Central High is discouraging. Why are teachers asking their black students to talk about someone they know who was murdered? Why are classes full of black students debating whether it is the “white man” or their own communities which bear the responsibility for their poor grades? Why is a principal interrupting an AP class to cry in front of her students while she talks about race?

Empathy and emotion are wonderful things, but alone, they won’t solve problems. In fact, such displays and classroom “dialogues” are more likely to reinforce unhealthy stereotypes than overturn them. Black students at Central, and around the country, shouldn’t be talking about race — they should be talking about math, history, and geography. If we want to see black and white students sitting together in the lunchroom, the efforts must start in the classroom.

The film shows that despite Central’s unique history, its racial problems today are not unique. In this way, Central’s historical significance has not defined its present and no longer distinguishes its day-to-day operations from those of other large, public high schools that span the country.

No, its students are regular public-school students, its problems par for the course. Central High School has a past that deserves to be remembered. But things are different now, the civil rights battles have changed, and new legacies will need to be created.

Without ever asking the question, Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later asks it: what will be Central High School’s legacy 50 years from today?

Liam Julian is associate writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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