Columns » John Brummett

Getting better while getting blacker

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Once, in a seminar on race, a black man told about the time a columnist wrote that the Little Rock School District’s black student population had shot past 60 percent and was “getting worse.” The black man asked what was bad about black kids going to Little Rock schools. He wondered why it was “worse” if more went. That columnist, no longer with us, surely meant that the unhealthy condition of racial resegregation was worsening. But it was always possible that he had written something Freudian. The other day the University of Arkansas at Little Rock put out a study forecasting that Pine Bluff, now two-thirds black, would be 90 percent so by 2030. “Is that bad?” I asked Pine Bluff¹s new and historic first black mayor, Carl Redus, in his office Monday. “I don¹t think it’s bad,” he said. “People are people. We might have an influx of 30 percent Hispanics. Either way, what we need is to prepare a foundation, to put in place a different mindset to work toward a greater opportunity and quality of life for the people who will be here. That foundation is about character. We have character challenges in Pine Bluff. We have them in our families, our schools, our churches and in the business community.” Redus, 55, grew up in a different kind of segregated Pine Bluff. His parents ran the Duck Inn, a blueplate joint and famous stop for politicians. He went to college down the street at Arkansas AM&N, then off to graduate school in business in Atlanta. There was a black middle class in Pine Bluff then, one that sustained its segregated self. He said it was a happier Pine Bluff than the one he chose out of family and community devotion to return to a few years ago. He found double-digit unemployment, high crime and dilapidated housing. That was after he had fashioned a successful business career based in Atlanta selling information systems to banks (and being a neighbor of Andrew Young). That’s not to say school integration was a mistake, he said. It’s to say that the agricultural economy could no longer sustain the prosperous old Pine Bluff, so the white people fled and the black people were dispersed from the self-sustaining segregated neighborhood into a general local economy that was weak. You’ll notice that Redus describes issues in business rather than social terms. He doesn¹t deny racism. But he thinks it’s not productive to dwell on it and that it’s not the problem on the table. The problem on the table is what kind of town will Pine Bluff be, whether 90 percent black or 70 per polka dot. To hear Redus describe his job after 30 days is to glean that he intends to perform it by reaching out to the community as a consensus-builder and facilitator, not so much through policy initiatives that he’d need to push through the city council. That’s probably a good thing. The city council is famously dysfunctional, split 4-4. It’s inhabited by one fellow who is jail-bound and a couple of others who seem to spend more time running for mayor than attending to council responsibilities. In his first week as mayor, the council greeted Redus with an ordinance removing any role for the mayor in hiring and firing. Redus didn’t seem sure what to do about it. An emboldened community that had given him 62 percent of the vote made the decision for him, rising up in outrage. Redus vetoed the measure. Typically, Redus said he sought the counsel of “CEOs and HROs,” meaning private-sector chief executive officers and human resource officers. Now he will seek to engage the community, challenging families to do better so kids will behave so schools can do better, and challenging churches and businesses to preach and practice personal and civic responsibility. His own challenge will be to keep hope alive, which he could best accomplish by resisting any notion, Freudian or otherwise, that “blacker” means “worse.”

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