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The inadequate legacy of Brown 

LRSD continues to abdicate its responsibility to educate poor black students.

click to enlarge CENTRAL HIGH: Desegregated 60 years ago.
  • CENTRAL HIGH: Desegregated 60 years ago.

"Providing unequal and inadequate school resources and excluding black parents from meaningful participation in school policymaking are at least as damaging to black children as enforced separation." — Derrick Bell, "Serving Two Masters"

Sixty years after National Guardsmen were called to protect nine black students from a rabid, racist white mob at Little Rock Central High School, we regret to say that racism remains a prominent trait of the power dynamics of our nation, our city and our schools.

We write this piece on the heels of settling yet another lawsuit against the Little Rock School District in which black students alleged that the LRSD has exercised racially discriminatory policies and practices. In order to understand the LRSD's discriminatory treatment of black children in the present, there has to be an understanding of the courts' failures and missed opportunities of the past.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education effectively rid the nation of de jure racial segregation, but the decision was not without its shortcomings. Most notably, Brown did not create a right for students to be free of de facto segregation or any of the conditions that reproduce segregation in our schools (e.g. poverty, ghettoization and disenfranchisement in local educational policymaking). This conspicuous omission was indicative of liberal legalism's commitment to formal and procedural justice as opposed to substantive justice.

White segregationist policymakers were quick to forcefully rebuke Brown. In 1956, over a hundred members of Congress, including the entire Arkansas delegation, signed the "Southern Manifesto" in which they pledged to "use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of [Brown] ... and to prevent the use of force in its implementation." The story of the LRSD over the past 60 years is a testament to how segregationists have been largely successful in this endeavor.

After Brown, increasingly conservative courts addressed racial discrimination claims involving school districts that had ended their policy of de jure discrimination and were found to be unitary by a court. These courts held that proof that certain policies or practices burdened students of one race more than those of another was not enough to sustain a racial discrimination claim; claimants were also required to prove that the people or institutions responsible for said policies or practices acted with discriminatory intent. In other words, literally all white students may be educated in luxurious, ultramodern buildings while all black students are educated in antebellum shacks so long as there is no proof that the forces behind this segregative situation are acting with discriminatory intent. Thus the tension between equality as a process and equality as a result remains at the fore as courts weigh the theoretical innocence of modern white policymakers more heavily than the historically rooted, destitute conditions in which students of color are disproportionately situated.

click to enlarge THE AUTHOR: State Rep. John Walker, with Omavi Shukur.
  • THE AUTHOR: State Rep. John Walker, with Omavi Shukur.

Today, the entirety of the LRSD's administrative and policy-making power is concentrated in the hands of two white men who are, in our opinion, little more than mercenaries of the profiteering Northwest Arkansas Walton elite: Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner (and de facto LRSD school board) Johnny Key and Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore. Two white men wield all of the power over a school district that has a 64 percent black student population. While Key and Poore are careful to use language of racial equality, their practices and policies do not demonstrate a commitment to racial equality, which is why several black LRSD parents and students brought a lawsuit, known as the Doe case, against the district in which they alleged, in part, that it has discriminatorily allocated top-end facilities and high-quality educational resources in an effort to privilege, recruit and retain white students.

White students are dramatically underrepresented in the LRSD's student population due to white flight out of the school district into charter schools, private schools and other school districts. Key, Poore and Poore's predecessor, Baker Kurrus, have rewarded white flight out of the LRSD, in part, by: 1) gifting West Little Rock, and its disproportionately white student population, a brand new middle school as an inducement for white parents to stay and/or return to the district; and 2) maintaining a racially gerrymandered Central High School attendance zone designed to provide West Little Rock students greater access to the district's most well-resourced high school.

Meanwhile, the disproportionately black student populations served by McClellan High School and Cloverdale Middle School are being educated in facilities that an independent design firm concluded, well before Key and Poore rose to the helm of the LRSD, should be replaced. Several of McClellan's classrooms constitute a fire hazard due to the gap at the bottom of several walls where they are supposed to meet the floor. Also, Cloverdale's foundation problems are so severe that the school is coming apart at the seams.

click to enlarge SHUKUR: The lawyer and his colleague John Walker say equal rights without equal results "amounts to little more than empty promises."
  • SHUKUR: The lawyer and his colleague John Walker say equal rights without equal results "amounts to little more than empty promises."

Poore has acknowledged that several families are leaving the LRSD because many of their buildings are not as high-quality, but, when provided the opportunity, the LRSD treated the disproportionately white student population of West Little Rock as a priority over and above the disproportionately black student populations served by McClellan and Cloverdale. This despite the fact that Poore believes the quality of school facilities impacts student achievement (remember both Cloverdale and McClellan were recently on the state's academic distressed list). This despite the fact that the LRSD has no evidence that students in West Little Rock were being educated under conditions akin to the appalling conditions of Cloverdale and McClellan. This despite the fact that the LRSD is losing more black students to charters than white students.

When Key, the de facto school board, was asked if there were any efforts to stop the declining enrollment at McClellan and Cloverdale, or even to learn the cause of the declining enrollment, he simply replied, "I don't know."

Also, neither Key nor Poore have provided an explanation as to why Central has a noncontiguous attendance zone that allows students in West Little Rock to attend well-resourced Central while students in Central Little Rock, who live closer to Central, have to attend academically distressed Hall High School. This gerrymandered attendance zone is another scheme designed to privilege, recruit and retain white students.

Meanwhile, the LRSD continues to abdicate its responsibility to educate poor black students, whom the LRSD treats as the underserving poor. For example, black students routinely account for over 85 percent of the district's suspensions and expulsions. Poore has admitted that he cannot say that race does not play a factor in some LRSD disciplinary actions, citing an example of a Hall High School teacher calling a black student a "nigger" during the 2016-17 school year.

The plaintiffs settled their case in the face of decades of case law watering down Brown, one of the most conservative judicial circuit courts of appeal in the nation, and a U.S. Supreme Court that recently struck down part of the Voting Rights Act. They could not afford to forego the educational benefits the settlement agreement offered to their community.

The settlement agreement places a moratorium on new school construction until a new high school is built in Southwest Little Rock and Cloverdale is replaced (unless an existing building is damaged or destroyed). It mandates that the LRSD take affirmative steps to increase awareness of the benefits of its high-quality educational resources (e.g. gifted and talented programs and advanced placement classes). The hope is that parents equipped with knowledge of these benefits will advocate for their children to have access to all of the high-quality educational resources the district has to offer. The agreement also requires the LRSD to make several facilities improvements in predominantly impoverished black schools, improvements that should have been completed long before the district spent over $30 million dollars building a new middle school to privilege, recruit and retain the predominantly well-to-do, white students of West Little Rock.

It should go without saying that this agreement is not enough to protect our students from the profiteering, racist bigotry to which they are currently subjected. We need local control and a population that is willing to hold our educational policymakers accountable. We need our best educational resources and facilities to be targeted at the impoverished, the disabled and other disadvantaged students who are in the most need. We need to treat instances of deviant behavior as opportunities to innovate and implement environmental and therapeutic solutions to issues of behavioral health instead of convenient excuses for callous misanthropes to vindictively neglect black and Latino students whom they see as unworthy at best, and inhuman at worst.

The last 60 years has been a testament to the fact that equal rights without equal results amounts to little more than empty promises.

Omavi Shukur and Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) are attorneys with the John W. Walker Law Firm.


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