Fifty years after the desegregation crisis at Central High School, how is Little Rock doing in race relations? Everyone has an opinion.
Race has been at the forefront of Arkansas's difficulties, as a barrier to progress, dating back to statehood in 1836. Little Rock, it can be argued, is the state's most progressive city but race remains a problem here, as recent events in the Little Rock School District made undeniable. Four years ago, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock began examining community attitudes about race through an annual survey by the UALR Institute of Government.
Why take on this sensitive subject? Here, and in most other communities across the country, the topic has been cloaked in a code of silence. A theme of the university's initiative has been, “You have to face it to fix it.”
The university has the standing to break the code of silence on race, draw attention to a sensitive subject and achieve broad discussion. Moreover, UALR recognizes that if the community prospers, so does the university. If the community suffers, so does the university. Therefore, it makes sense for the university to do what it can to help address this persistent problem.
Why a survey? The university can use it as a tool to provide good information, which is a prerequisite for productive discussion and good decisions. A survey also serves as a mirror for the community and helps it see reality, just as the mirror over the lavatory at home helps people see whether and where they need to scrub their faces.
UALR and its Institute of Government were not around to do surveys in the 1950s, so there is no good baseline of data from 1957. But people who were alive in the 1950s and experienced the racially segregated schools, restaurants, restrooms, motels, swimming pools, white national media, white-dominated sports (Jackie Robinson had broken the color line in baseball in 1947), along with other manifestations of the Jim Crow era, have seen change for the better. They will see that change reflected in some of the numbers below. However, if the courageous civil rights visionaries of the 1950s could be assembled and interviewed at the Central High celebration on Sept. 25, they would almost certainly say that what they had hoped for and expected back in 1957 is not at all what they see in 2007. Their disappointment would be confirmed by some of the numbers below.
The four annual surveys have included more than 150 separate survey items, so only a small selection can be noted here. The surveys were conducted by telephone and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent for both black and white responses. There are actually twin surveys, one for Little Rock and one for the remainder of Pulaski County. The numbers are very similar in the two surveys, so the focus here will be on Little Rock.
Questions on broad issues
Race relations overall. Among Little Rock blacks participating in the 2004 survey, 18 percent said race relations were either “very bad” or “somewhat bad,” while 79 percent pronounced them either “somewhat good” or “very good.” For Little Rock whites, the numbers were remarkably similar: 15 percent somewhat bad or very bad, 83 percent somewhat good or very good. In response to a follow-up question the following three years, large majorities of both races said race relations had stayed the same or had improved.
Civil rights progress. When asked how civil rights for blacks have changed over their lifetimes, 72 percent of blacks and 85 percent of whites responded that they had improved. But within those numbers, only 15 percent of blacks, compared with 41 percent of whites, said they had “greatly improved.”
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