Dear LRSD Board of Directors:
I came to the board meeting last night as an observer. In the 1980s and 1990s I was trained as a historian and completed my doctorate at Auburn University. I currently teach at Parkview Arts and Science Magnet and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Next year I have been hired as a tenure track assistant professor in the department of history at UALR and will be leaving the Little Rock School District. My research and writing interests for the past fifteen years have been in the area of race relations and specifically in tracing how white communities have defined their power and privilege at the expense of minority communities. I came to the board meeting to observe. I felt that if the charges against Roy Brooks could be substantiated he should be fired; if they could not he should be allowed to continue his reforms.
I arrived at the meeting at four o’clock and sat in the back of a room beginning to fill up with white moms from West Little Rock and the Heights who came to support Brooks. Many of them spoke with excitement about their hopes to argue their case for Brooks; they were giddy about their chances of saving the superintendent’s job. As time went on more and more African Americans came into the room and began to talk about their hopes of seeing Brooks removed.
The meeting began and then just like that it was over in a whirlwind of white applause, Brooks leaving the room to high-fives, and African American men and women sitting with their mouths open wondering what had just happened. It occurred to me in that dramatic moment that Roy Brooks was not the real issue.
The deeper issue, one each of you must face this Good Friday, is the desperate racial divide that plagues your board, our schools, and our city. Dr. Brooks did not cause this divide and firing him will not heal this divide. Racism in 2007 can be hard to identify, but do not be deceived it is still here. Historian George Lipsitz reminds of an interview that novelist Richard Wright gave shortly after World War II in which he was asked about the “negro problem” facing America. Wright replied, “There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem.” Lipsitz argues that by inverting the reporters question that Wright was calling attention to “its hidden assumptions – that racial polarization comes from the existence of blacks rather then from the behavior of whites, that black people are a ‘problem’ for whites rather then fellow citizens entitled to justice, and that unless otherwise specified, ‘Americans’ means whites.”
We have two school districts in Little Rock. There is a white district where kids are succeeding and will go on to do well in college and the workforce, and then there is an African American district where kids are not only being left behind but they are being left out of the educational experiences that will prepare them for a prosperous future. It is going to take great leaders to fix these problems, but our duly elected leaders suffer from the same racial polarization that plagues our schools.
During the last forty years, while white people in Little Rock fled to private schools, African Americans stayed in the public schools and fought with limited finances and crumbling buildings to create an environment in which their kids could get a world class education. Throughout these years the school board was dominated by white leaders from West Little Rock and the Heights. In the last couple of years, these African American citizens organized and won control of the Little Rock School Board. It is time that my fellow white citizens accept the leadership of this democratically elected board and show the African American members respect. At last night’s meeting Dr. Katherine Mitchell was treated like a second class citizen. I was embarrassed last night to be white. Each board member that tried to run over her should publicly and humbly apologize.
It is time for the board, black and white, to build new coalitions, to talk with one another, to go to each others churches, and to have dinner in each others homes. In a word – it is time for you to be leaders in our community. Central High 1957 still haunts us; we may pretend this anniversary year that all is well, but this city, our board, and our schools are still racially divided. You must end this racial polarization now. Speak about this racial divide and we can begin to heal it, but don’t let the Brooks matter become a distraction. At the end of the day, Brooks is not completely invested in our community. He can return to Florida with our money, and we will still be faced with the deadening reality of white and black distrust and disdain.
This Good Friday 2007, let us put to death the cold calculating injustice of our unspoken assumptions of white privilege and allow ourselves to die to distrust, disdain, and hate. And in the cool of the morning, maybe hope will be resurrected. Maybe we will find our common humanity and our common love for all our children regardless of race. Then and only then can we begin to honestly say that our schools are integrated; until that resurrection morning we will be liars to ourselves and our children.