Columns » Max Brantley

Happy 50th

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Good timing. Little Rock observes the 50th anniversary of the school desegregation crisis amid racially tinged turmoil in the Little Rock School District.

Superintendent Roy Brooks is the problem. The four-member black board majority wants to fire him. The three-member white minority wants to keep him. Brooks is black, but from the first he’s been a favorite of the white business community for his animus toward the Classroom Teachers Association, civil rights lawyer John Walker and the black members of the board who opposed his hiring.

Parents tend to be divided on racial lines, though many white parents want Brooks gone. An active Brooks support group is virtually all white.

Brooks has blundered. He struck unauthorized secret deals with Walter Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and historically no champion of public schools, to do merit pay experiments. Brooks ignored the contract that required a teacher vote first. He free-lanced legislation aimed at restricting access to school campuses by his critics. He’s shipped taxpayer subsidies to the nominally private Little Rock Public Education Foundation, a nonprofit whose officials returned the favor by lobbying for Brooks and friendly school board candidates. There’s more, but his alleged disregard of black board members is a more important matter.

Brooks’ support in the corporate community is reflected in the higher income neighborhoods that are home to some of Little Rock’s few remaining majority white schools. Active parents’ groups in those schools have rallied to Brooks.

The problem is not black and white, figuratively speaking. For example: Brooks’ critics have legitimate grievances, but his defenders deserve to hear a specific recitation. (Policy says those reasons must be expressed in writing, if, after I go to press, the board votes to fire Brooks.)

Also, it’s worth remembering that the corporate community helped create this furor by its ham-fisted effort to steamroller teachers in the 2006 election. Those crying loudest now about the democratically elected majority were fully ready to jam their wishes down the minority’s throats had they won.

Both sides are guilty of racial insensitivity. Too many whites believe black board members are incapable of independent thought and even make fun of their speech. Too many blacks think active white parents are bent on being plantation overseers, when they could have fled to the comfortable suburbs long ago.

Board member Baker Kurrus has raised the valid concern that a majority-black district driven solely by racial politics will become one-race and join the graveyard of urban districts nationwide. But it is, to borrow a cliche, the soft bigotry of low expectations to assume that a disaster will follow should a white-supported superintendent be fired by a black board majority.

There are plenty of targets for finger-pointing. But it’s not particularly productive. Nor is it productive for Hussman to use his newspaper to inflame the dispute by calling an effort to remove Brooks a lynching. I don’t remember that word used when a white board sent Hank Williams away.

Mediation might have been useful once, but it’s more productive now to look to the future. Can the post-Brooks era be free of recriminations and revenge?

A racially diverse group wants to encourage UALR to again accept a civic problem-solving role in the district, perhaps even provide temporary leadership through a loaned executive. It’s a perfect mission for Chancellor Joel Anderson’s ongoing initiative on race relations.

Come the September anniversary, it would be nice if Little Rock could demonstrate some ability at racial problem solving after all these years.

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