As a parent of two Central High students, I was troubled but hardly startled by Brandon Love’s “Tale of Two Centrals,” reprinted in the Times May 10.
It was not the first time I had heard someone level this criticism at Central. But it was the first time I had heard it from an African-American student who has tried to move back and forth between the two worlds at Central. His stories of racial stereotyping and his suspicions that Central may be restricting African-American students’ access to Advanced Placement courses are stark reminders that in Arkansas and America, race is still a huge factor in our everyday lives and thinking.
The essay is troubling in part because some will undoubtedly see in the problems Love identifies confirmation of the failure of public education. For some, he has described a uniquely unpleasant place for students of all colors.
Those inferences are too harsh. Racial tension is not a Central High phenomenon. We should avoid disparaging Central’s students for not overcoming racial suspicions and divisions that the rest of us haven’t vanquished either.
Fifty-three years after the Supreme Court ordered a halt to racially separate schools in the United States, the racial stratification and self-segregation at Central are still very visible in much of our society. Churches, neighborhoods and social patterns are, for the most part, segregated in this city. Why should we expect our children at Central High to be immune from forces that appear almost everywhere else in our society?
Principal Nancy Rousseau and counselor Leslie Kearney rightly point out that Central’s racial tensions are like those at any large school outside of racially homogenous communities. They could have gone farther. The worst of Central’s realities — racial “prejudices and stereotypes,” “imaginary lines” separating blacks and whites, and a gulf between the “vast opportunities” of some students and the “limited” ambitions and opportunities of others — are the realities of much of America.
A widening chasm between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest Americans aggravates these tensions. The daily coarsening of our culture by popular media and the entertainment industry further divides us and makes it harder for all of us to understand each other. Central is sadly a reflection of a divided, coarse world our children are inheriting.
The other troubling aspect of this lies in squandered opportunities. The generation of current Central parents has been educated entirely in a post-desegregation era. If the “Tale of Two Centrals” is an indication, we have not done as much as we should have to foster more enlightened attitudes about people who are different from us. It would be naive to doubt that there are some parents who view the concentration of white students in AP courses as a means of shielding their children from those “other” kids at Central.
Ultimately I do see hope in Brandon Love’s critique of his high school and the sensitive and sensible response it evoked from his principal and counselor. All of them are confronting ancient, lamentable forces of racism that still divide us. They are addressing racially based suspicions.
We should all be trying to do likewise. For too long, too many of us have been ignoring these problems by denying that they present a cultural cancer afflicting our state and country, not just large, inner city public schools.
Nate Coulter is a Little Rock lawyer.