Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
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.”
Workplace integration. Probably a big change since 1957, blacks and whites interact with each other extensively, and not just in the public schools. In terms of the workplace, the 2004 survey found that 67 percent of Little Rock blacks and 57 percent of Little Rock whites who are employed outside the home reported they work “with many members” of another race. Very few Little Rock blacks (7 percent) and whites (2 percent) indicated they were “uncomfortable” working with members of another race. In addition, 91 percent of blacks and 58 percent of whites reported they had worked for a boss of another race.
Questions on more focused issues
In their 2006 report, Institute of Government researchers wrote, “Blacks and whites have enormous differences in perceptions about whether blacks are treated the same as whites.” Those differences show up in a number of the following survey items.
Nolan Richardson lawsuit. In a split reminiscent of the national reaction to the O.J. Simpson murder trial, 77 percent of Little Rock blacks were “very sympathetic” or “somewhat sympathetic” toward former Arkansas Razorback basketball Coach Nolan Richardson after he sued university officials for racial discrimination. In contrast, only 21 percent of Little Rock whites were very sympathetic or somewhat sympathetic — with 41 percent of whites selecting the most extreme negative response: “very unsympathetic.”
Equal treatment. Respondents were asked, “In your opinion, how well do you think blacks are treated in your community—the same as whites are, not very well, or badly?” In 2006, 45 percent of blacks thought blacks were treated the same as whites, while 71 percent of whites held this view. This is an item on which opinion has moved, with the black percentage rising from 37 percent in the first annual survey, to 39 percent in the second, to 45 percent in the third. Nonetheless, the difference (45 percent and 71 percent) between black and white responses to this sense-of-fairness question remains large.
Criminal justice system. Blacks (90 percent) and whites (53 percent) believe blacks are treated more harshly than whites in the criminal justice system.
Local government. When asked about trust in the city Board of Directors to make policy decisions equally fair to blacks and whites, 72 percent of whites trusted the board either a “fair amount” or a “great deal.” Among blacks, 44 percent trusted the board a “fair amount” or “a great deal.”
Police protection. In regard to the ability of police to protect them from violent crime, 63 percent of blacks responded “not very much” or “none at all.” For whites, the negative responses totaled 39 percent for “not very much” or “none at all.”
Chance for a good education. In the survey released this past spring, a majority of both blacks and whites in Little Rock think black children have as good a chance as white children to get a good education: blacks 60 percent, whites 68 percent.
Children socializing. Nearly 90 percent of black respondents think it is “very important” for children to socialize with children of different races, compared with 72 percent of whites.
Events of 1957 — continuing impact. Blacks (66 percent) and whites (62 percent) believe the events at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 are still affecting race relations in the community. Of those who see continuing impact, blacks (69 percent) are more likely to see it as positive than are whites (52 percent).
Importance of college. Eight out of 10 blacks and seven out of 10 whites believe that having a college education is “very important” to succeed in life.
The survey item I have found most disturbing is the question that asked blacks if they could think of any occasion in the “last 30 days” when they felt they were treated unfairly because they were black — (1) in a store while shopping; (2) at their place of work; (3) in a restaurant, bar, theater, or other entertainment place; (4) in dealing with police; (5) in getting health care. (In the first annual survey, white responses to a parallel question produced negligible responses, so the question has since been limited to blacks).
Here are the percentages of blacks in Little Rock in the 2005 survey who reported they had experienced unfair treatment based on race in the past 30 days: stores (21 percent), place of work (25 percent), entertainment places (21 percent), dealings with police (16 percent), in getting health care (17 percent).
Among all black respondents in Little Rock, 52 percent reported discrimination in at least one of the four situations. One in four (26 percent) reported discrimination in at least two of them.
I regard this as a crucial finding. Assuming the 30-day period preceding the survey was a typical month for black respondents, it means that half of the blacks in the city experience racial discrimination in their ordinary activities every month. For blacks, such present-day experiences rekindle memories of the enormous insults in their past.
The responses to this survey item reminded me of an experiment by a graduate speech communication class at UALR in 1997 at the time of the 40th anniversary of the 1957 events at Central High School. In the experiment, white and black students sought refunds, without receipts, when returning merchandise to local stores. In all instances the whites received refunds, while all of the blacks were refused.
The UALR surveys show that, a half-century after a national milestone in civil rights occurred in Little Rock, blacks and whites still experience life very differently in the Arkansas capital.
The university will continue the annual surveys. Generally, the reaction to the surveys has been positive — at least that has been true of the reactions that have reached me. A few people have asked, “Why don't you just leave it alone?” For some issues, letting time take care of things makes sense. But the numbers reported here document a persistent community problem crying out for attention. I should add that, among the several people saying the issue was best left alone, not one was black.
The UALR Institute of Government will repeat questions from time to time, to show trends over the years, and also will add questions that explore additional aspects of race in our community. This past spring, when the survey was released, a university demographer and an economist made the first of ongoing annual presentations on the economics of race in our community. At the end of the day, the community has two compelling incentives to address the issue of race. One is moral: It is the right thing to do. The other is economic: It is good for everyone's pocketbook.
I am hopeful that, over time, good information about race here in our hometown, generated by qualified university researchers, will lend strength to both incentives and move us to achieve a just community for all … sooner rather than later.
Joel Anderson is chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The four annual surveys he describes are available online at www.ualr.edu/iog/racial attitudes.htm. The UALR Institute of Government can be contacted at 569-8572. Joel Anderson can be contacted at email@example.com.
Bending toward justice
The arc of UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson's history has bent towards racial justice for almost a half century.
Writing this week as architect of UALR's ongoing study of race relations in Pulaski County, Anderson had to be coaxed to provide background on some deeply personal context.
A book you might see in his home bears stark witness. “Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore” includes a striking photograph of the future chancellor of UALR on Oct. 1, 1962, at the head of a double column of students (he's on the left) who've been arrested on the campus of Ole Miss the morning after Sunday riots in advance of the desegregation of the school by James Meredith.
The story: Anderson was a student then at what is now Harding University in Searcy. He grew up in segregated northeast Arkansas. His attitude began changing in college, guided by professors at what was then and is now a conservative religious institution.
“I had teachers at Harding I got close to and they just basically expressed the view that segregation — and the way the country was treating black people — was wrong.”
After girls' curfew on a Sunday night, Anderson and other male students were talking in his dorm room about news reports that day from Ole Miss. There had been a pitched battle. Two people were killed. Tear gas hung over the campus.
“We decided to head down to Oxford and see it up close,” Anderson recalls.
Anderson had no demonstration in mind, but his sympathies were on James Meredith's side. He wanted to be a witness to history.
The drive took most of the night. He and the other students spent the final hours before daylight in a cafe, and then set out walking to the campus, just in time to meet a military dragnet of all the non-students in a search for those responsible for violence the night before.
“That's how we wound up in a double column of folks in the photograph.”
Anderson is at the head of the column, his hands clasped behind his head like a prisoner of war. He and friends were held all day, questioned at length by the FBI.
Meredith gained admission to Ole Miss that day. Anderson spent the day on a military prisoners' bus.
“I was handcuffed to a guy that on Sunday had commandeered a fire engine and driven into the middle of campus. He had been gassed. He was in a lot of pain.” (He also was, it should be added, a segregationist.)
About 8:30 p.m., someone began calling names. Those called were taken off the bus and released — Anderson and his friends among them. Anderson remembers he was apprehensive about the reaction on his return to Harding, but nothing untoward happened. Most were excited about his experience.
He would “proudly” see his own college desegregate in his senior year, 1963-64. In graduate school in Washington in 1966, Anderson would hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. Back home in Arkansas, he would become a Republican Party regular, part of the coalition built by Winthrop Rockfeller to wrest power from the Faubus machine.
And now, almost 45 years after Oxford, Anderson plugs away at the whys and extent of an issue that still divides us.
— Max Brantley