Columns » Max Brantley

Toyota's decision

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The intertwined elements of race, poverty and education are rarely far beneath the surface in Arkansas, however reluctant we might be to broach them.

This week’s Times has an interesting article on black participation in Advanced Placement courses at historic Central High School. Fifty years after the school crisis, Central is desegregated. But integrated? That’s a tougher question.

Race also is edging its way into public discussion on the recent decision by Toyota to bypass a site in the Arkansas Delta for Tupelo, Miss.

Since pollution standards have mostly been swept aside as a major factor, Gov. Mike Beebe and his new economic development director, Maria Haley, have gingerly allowed that workforce preparedness might deserve attention. Education and work ethic were cited by Toyota in its selection of Mississippi.

What does this have to do with race? Maybe nothing. Except that black people in the Delta tend to be disproportionately impoverished and the impoverished tend to lag in education. Thus, a large, poor minority population is sometimes read as an undereducated population.

Consider Census data for Crittenden County, home to the site Arkansas hoped to sell to Toyota, versus Tupelo’s home in Lee County, Miss.

Crittenden’s black population percentage is about 50 percent, almost twice the 25.8 percent in Tupelo. Tupelo also has many fewer people living in poverty, many more college graduates and significantly more high school graduates, not to mention a 20 percent higher median income.

Did these facts influence Toyota’s decision? I don’t know, but it seems worth consideration.

Ignore race if you wish, but you can’t ignore education. A couple of years ago, Toyota passed up richer U.S. incentives to put an assembly plant in Canada. A Canadian industrialist was quoted then as saying that the education level in the South was so low that trainers for a Japanese plant in Alabama had to use picture books to teach use of high-tech equipment.

Stephens Media columnist John Brummett reported on a study drawing on human resource officers’ experience that found a majority of Arkansas high school graduates lacking in reading, writing and basic math, not to mention such essentials as punctuality, motivation and showing up for work.

The state’s new director of workforce education, former Sen. Bill Walker, is as candid today as he was when we shared a common interest in attempting to use the Freedom of Information Act to learn through state Industrial Development Commission documents if racial criteria had influenced a Japanese tire company’s plant site decision. I won the lawsuit. The well-scrubbed data it unearthed was inconclusive. The state had no interest then in discussing such a touchy subject.

Walker says workforce preparedness has to be an issue in a state where 30 percent or more of the adult population lacks a high school diploma or equivalent and where illiteracy remains high. He’s committed to reach and train workers in today’s skills. In response to a question, he says, too, that while no one will ever admit race has been a criterion in industrial decision, places with high minority populations somehow “seem to be places people tend to avoid.”

Beebe has said recently we should sell the whole state. Translation: If manufacturers don’t like workers in the Delta, maybe they’ll like workers in Fort Smith better.

We’ll never sell the Delta by selling it short. We must invest in our people, not simply hope that tax giveaways, bargain land and a desperate workforce equal sound development policy. If the facts are unpleasant, let’s deal with them.

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