Columns » Max Brantley

Trouble in the ’hood

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My next-door neighbor was robbed at gunpoint while I was on vacation.

We learned later that the robber had cased four houses on the street — newly lit with street lamps — before deciding which one to rob, perhaps by eyeballing the occupants when they were drawn outside by tripped electrical breakers.

The robbery followed several others in the neighborhood, including the carjacking of a young woman a few blocks away.

Good news came to our unsettled neighborhood Monday, Thanks to evidence gathered in the abduction, a warrant was issued. The suspect turned himself in and it looks like he'll be charged with all my neighborhood's crimes, plus more.

Small world. It turns out I was about 10 blocks from the suspected robber's Twelfth Street house Saturday afternoon. I was at a parking lot rally for School Board member Micheal Daugherty, whose bid for re-election was to be decided after we went to press this week. His election, predictably, has split on racial lines. Daugherty is black, part of a four-member black ruling majority. His opponent, Anna Swaim, is white. The district is majority black.

Swaim seemed the better candidate. She shares my views on some important issues, but she also seemed more likely to improve transparency and order on a School Board that has lacked it. Still, I was sympathetic to Daugherty. The Pavlovian financial support of Swaim by white business executives, some with no ties now or ever to public schools, seemed motivated too much by race. Yes, there are fair questions about cronyism, backroom dealing and competence. But these subjects rarely stirred the business community when they could be applied to white board members. I found insulting and patronizing the frequently expressed view that the black board members only cared about patronage, power and lining John Walker's pockets, not children.

That's not what I heard at Daugherty's campaign rally Saturday. I heard black people ask, with true mystification, what made white executives fear black board members so. I heard them note the failure of the Little Rock School District to lift black students beyond the state average, even as it has become a magnet for high-achieving white students and even as tens of millions have been spent to accomplish more for minorities. I heard them say repeatedly that the number of schools judged in need of improvement was still rising. I heard them say that too little concern existed for black students' poor outcomes when a white majority was in charge. And I heard cries of sincere frustration over the sure toll of this failure, particularly for black males. They fall behind, they are shunted to “alternative” classrooms, and they soon graduate to crime and prison.

This brings us neatly back to the young man who robbed my neighbor. He turned 18 in March. He'd left school behind to live with a girlfriend and child. Given the ingenuity with which he pursued his criminal occupation, he must be teachable. But reachable? That's tougher. It's one reason I won't ascribe selfish motives to the people I heard Saturday. Time after time, they asked not for jobs or payoffs, but to be given a chance to deliver where white leadership has failed their kids, with the result of crushing damage to their neighborhoods and society. Whatever the election outcome, their voices deserve to be heard.

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