Little Rock's problem 

Much to my surprise, all three black Little Rock City Board directors — Erma Hendrix, Doris Wright and Ken Richardson — were solidly behind Hendrix's idea of a city residency requirement for police, and my city director, Kathy Webb, indicated some sympathy to the idea during discussion at last week's Board meeting. The Board was to vote on the ordinance at a meeting after our press time.

I was glad to see the beginning of a discussion last week on city incentives for residency — as opposed to a requirement. It's worth considering, though the city's poor financial condition doesn't offer much hope for meaningful incentives.

But this was disappointing: Police Chief Kenton Buckner was among those too ready (or so it seemed to me from my reading of an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story) to blithely repeat, without qualification, a slam on Little Rock schools as a key reason people don't want to live in Little Rock. I don't doubt the perception. But I'd argue that it's, at least, not wholly fair, and city officials are overdue to push back.

The city of Little Rock covers two school districts — Little Rock and Pulaski County. It has a growing number of free public charter schools as well as private schools galore. Even the widely despised Little Rock School District, which no doubt has some problem schools, has many high-achieving, even remarkable schools all over town, in neighborhoods rich and poor.

It is long past time for city leaders — who've neglected their own responsibility for schools too long — to stop blithely repeating the uninformed slurs so popular about Little Rock, particularly among the suburban development forces that have long used the word "schools" as a proxy for race. Yes, the Little Rock schools are majority black. My own children attended majority black schools from kindergarten through high school graduation and did far better than survive. As I've often said, I wasn't running a sociological experiment. If I'd ever thought there was a better place for my kids, I'd have enrolled them there.

Yes, there are problems. Some of them were created by city officials, and they are not improved by mindless tut-tutting. Race is an inextricable component. When only 21 percent of white cops live in Little Rock against more than 60 percent of black cops, they can say it's about schools or cost of living, but it is also about race.

The Little Rock City Board has facilitated segregated housing patterns by governance and also gave away a prosperous growth area, Chenal Valley, to the Pulaski County Special School District. It stocks schools with police officers who, by their arrest rates, seem to view themselves more as peacekeepers in Somalia than community resources. To his credit, City Manager Bruce Moore has vowed to do something about this.

If our city leaders view students as absentee cops view the city — inmates to be guarded rather than fellow citizens to be served — things are never going to get better. We may not want to require residency by police or other city employees, but I repeat: When even city directors believe young white people don't want to live here and by their policies encourage a payroll of commuters, Little Rock has a problem.

It will take more than a residency requirement to turn this mindset around. One positive step would be to introduce people like City Director Lance Hines, Police Chief Buckner and many others to the many centers of excellence in the Little Rock schools. They could do as I often have: Have a lunchroom meet-up with some of these sweet-faced children, the vast majority of them from economically deprived homes. They are not people to be feared. They are people to be loved, defended and served. Not used as excuses.


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