Forget 1957; talk about today 

Central High Little Rock 1957 image

A task force of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce pitched a proposal last week to repeal a 1957 Little Rock City Board resolution that cheered Gov. Orval Faubus for fighting to preserve segregation at Central High School.

There's no harm in decrying a craven act, even from the safety of 54 passed years and even though this resolution had no legal significance at the time. It was such a minor footnote that even premier historians of the school crisis didn't recall it. The task force also urged review of city ordinances for any vestiges of discrimination. Said one of the backers about the effort:

"This is an important step in identifying and correcting systemic bias which by its definition might have been built into the way we do business as a community."

Oh, if only the chamber of commerce really was serious about correcting systemic bias.

It could begin by refusing the $200,000 in tax money given to the Chamber of Commerce each year. This money directly subsidizes the chamber's fight against a living wage, organized labor, universal health care, progressive taxation, a just workers compensation system and an open door to the courthouse for injured people.

Talk about systemic bias must begin, however, with Little Rock's governance. It's the best the business establishment could preserve when citizens demanded some ward representation, but it's good enough. With three at-large directors on the 10-member city board, winners of the expensive citywide races invariably represent the business establishment. In combination with the directors from prosperous wards, the business establishment controls city government.

Little Rock is majority-minority. Blacks and Latinos outnumber whites. Yet only three of the 10 board members are black. That black neighborhoods feel overlooked and underrepresented was clear in the recent sales tax election. The tax was opposed by black voters but carried to victory by Chamber of Commerce money and extraordinary winning margins in a handful of upper crust neighborhoods.

Chamber support for a symbolic gesture toward racial healing is even more ironic when you consider local schools.

A Chamber employee continues to work to legislate an at-large election system for the Little Rock School Board, currently majority black.

The Chamber's egalitarian spirit can also be measured by its support for people who are resegregating local schools. The Chamber used its mailing list to distribute a letter from a lobbyist for the Walton family fortune that described every dollar spent by the state on desegregation in Little Rock as a total waste. This is money owed by the state as a direct result of Faubus policies and their support in 1957 by people like the City Board and leaders of the Chamber of Commerce. More than a few thousand black and white grads put the lie to the Walton stooge's libel of them.

The Chamber has supported the Walton-financed drive for more charter schools in Pulaski County. These schools divert middle class children into privately run schools that fracture support for the public school system.

No one has demonstrated that the charter schools have facilities, teachers, courses or student achievement superior to what's available in the Little Rock School District. But they do offer parents the reassuring presence of "people like us." This phrase is now more about class than skin color. But it's no less evidence of a systemic bias against have-nots.

In context, repeal of a piece of forgotten 1957 claptrap tells us a lot about the establishment's preference for the empty gesture over the hard work of systemic change.


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