BACK IN HIGH school, I worked with white people in mind. So much so, I can’t distinguish now what of my motivation toward academic success then was self-generated. I wanted my white classmates to know I was a worthy peer. I wanted them to know that I was possible, that black achievement was possible.
For me, there weren’t any other ways to interpret the continued existence of private schools in Little Rock like Catholic, or Mount St. Mary’s, or Pulaski Academy, or the Cathedral School, or now Episcopal Collegiate, beyond suspecting that some white parent believed putting their kid in proximity to me was toxic. I labored at convincing people otherwise, a burden that left me embittered by the blithefulness of some of my classmates, until I graduated from Central in 2002. That’s one consequence of American public-school integration on my life, a recovering token black kid—a tendency to ogle whiteness.
That, and the shame of owing some measure of my authorship (every grade gained, every election won, every byline penned, every musical note played) to someone else’s fear of me.
I OFTEN FAIL to bury my feelings regarding race and education in Little Rock—to not see car decals for the city’s former seg academies as braggadocio over having opted out, to not think of those institutions as deliberately intended to sequester white children and further entrench white supremacy, to not accuse wealthy white families in Little Rock of divesting from public schools, of not valuing diversity and inclusion, of wanting to hoard resources rather than joining their stake to the public good.
I grew up in a world that seemed to enshrine integration and diversity, but in truth, America’s individualist, meritocratic ethos has always haunted those high-minded ideals. In 1988, America reached the most balanced ratio of diversity it was ever to achieve after Brown v. Board of Education. And so, too, did Little Rock, reaching a racial ratio within its student population of about 60 percent black, 39 percent white. And yet, the district has hemorrhaged white students since. Today, that ratio is 62 percent black, 19 percent white, 15 percent Latinx. Though Little Rock’s public schools made efforts throughout the ’80s and ’90s to curtail the impact of white flight, private-school enrollment in the Little Rock Metropolitan Area grew by 157 percent between 1970 and 2000.
If we live in a nation defined by individual achievement, perhaps it’s unfair to fault parents in Little Rock who’ve prioritized improving the odds of their loved ones by creating ever more selective environments, valuing those spaces above the benefits of encountering difference. Little Rock’s ever-growing private-school population, its continued residential and educational expansion westward, and the siphoning of its public funds by charter-school networks all source from the same innocent-seeming impulse to create spaces of shared values. But such an innocuous intention, once enacted in our lives, once attached to institutions and neighborhoods, creates rigid boundaries that become harder to bridge as they become more deeply entrenched. Our city sometimes suffers from lacking a clearly articulated, rigorous ethic to counteract the very human impulses that drive us to sequester ourselves. My childhood and adolescence were defined by those boundaries, the city’s history of residential segregation alienating me from activities, mentors, spaces and ideas I wanted to access. So much so that I, a native son, still happen upon spaces here in the city that feel completely foreign to me.
THOUGH I’VE LONG thought it brave to look at other people’s privilege straight on, doing so now has begun to feel like a distraction from more pressing work: supporting Little Rock’s educators in their stand to collectively organize and advocate for themselves, supporting local communities in their fight to self-govern, and supporting local under-resourced student populations in securing the educational tools they deserve.
When I first sat down to write this essay, I was inspired by the spirit of a bumper sticker once popular throughout the city that read, “My Heart Is In Public Schools and So Are My Children,” wanting to write my own reminiscence of public schools, and to lament threats to public education. But as I’ve watched Little Rock’s schools negotiate the state’s occupation, my mind often returns to the way privilege pools in this city—behind hedges, inside cul-de-sacs, within the confines of mechanized gates. Though I maintain hope for the new vision shaping our city, I long for more robust dialogue and introspection about the city’s social hierarchies.
I believe it’s vital that Little Rock continue engaging voices beyond the city’s traditional reservoirs of influence, its Chamber of Commerce, its clubhouses and boards. If Little Rockians don’t continue the work begun in the spirit of reclaiming local control of its schools by the #OneLRSD movement, if we don’t recognize what’s happening within our schools as an encroachment of privatization against the dynamism a city such as this can produce, its citizens will miss this opportunity to forge new points of connection, new occasions to experience empathy and connect. The breadth of fellow citizens I’ve seen working on behalf of the #OneLRSD movement has awed me. The vigor of direct action and demonstration has forced us beyond long prevailing niceties, beyond the stiff air of parliamentary procedure that hangs over the capital city. That same fervor to gather and work collectively should pervade so many other facets of our lives, influencing decisions about the designated uses of public space, the development of retail, recreational and residential space, and more generally, emboldening us to continue working toward a more honest dialogue.
Because the social world I inhabit traverses such a stark racial and socio-economic boundary, I know how difficult forging bonds beyond one’s immediate sphere can be. I often review the exchanges I engage in regarding race and class and find ways to critique myself for being overzealous, or self-righteous, or lacking necessary patience and sympathy. Still, they always seem necessary, and fortunately, this city’s schools created an environment where I came to know people from communities different from my own willing to engage in these exchanges.
I no longer see those public-school bumper stickers around the city, and I fear their disappearance signals that our hearts are no longer in integration, because other priorities—that of the nuclear family, achievement, self interest—have superseded community. But the inclusive spirit they once broadcast deserves echoing still. Otherwise, the sentiment they hoped to project, the invocation to embrace and nurture others being rattled on placards and barked through megaphones, might also vanish from our lives.