Columns » John Brummett

UALR finds soft white veneer

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The University of Arkansas at Little Rock released a survey the other day showing that when white people in Pulaski County get asked by pollsters over the telephone what they think of black people, white people will say nice things about black people. That they trust them. That they'd like for them to move in next door. Whether these are the very same white people who have run west from black people and plopped their children into private and parochial academies, leaving the inner city hollow and public education to those of limited resources and dark complexion and to be disparaged for failed performance - well, the odds are strong. What happened was that UALR got itself a new chancellor last September and he needed something high-minded for his formal address at investiture. Dr. Joel E. Anderson declared that under his leadership UALR would annually survey racial attitudes in the county. The idea was to spur dialogue about improving the community's historic Achilles heel - you know, the one that got on the national news in 1957 and landed Little Rock's schools in federal court for a half-century. Anderson dispatched his school's Institute of Government to mimic federal polls of racial attitudes and make more than 1,600 calls to equal numbers of blacks and whites in Pulaski County. As best could be accomplished via telephone, white callers interviewed white respondents and black callers interviewed black respondents - the point being to overcome any social discomfort imposing an obstacle to candor. I don't think it worked. I suspect white people will kid themselves to other whites about blacks as surely as they'll kid themselves to blacks directly. One question: Do you distrust people of the other color to deal honestly with you? Five in 10 blacks said they didn't trust whites. Only one in 10 whites said they distrusted blacks. Another question: Do blacks have as good an opportunity as whites to get good housing? Four in 10 blacks said yes. Nearly eight in 10 whites said yes. The report's conclusion was that blacks and whites in the community perceive race matters differently, and that the disparity is the problem. But I suggest the sounder conclusion would be this: Black people are less likely than white people to give you a super-sized slab of baloney when surveyed on the phone about local race relations. A black person is apt to tell you things aren't fair. A white person is apt to tell you that things are swell, certainly in his own heart, just as soon as he punches the secret code to slide the gate allowing ingress to his neighborhood. More honest and meaningful than Anderson's survey was a little campus classroom project in 1997 on the 40th anniversary of the Little Rock Central High crisis. White youths and black youths were dispatched to local merchants to try to return items though none had a receipt to prove purchase. Whites got their money back and blacks didn't - uniformly, without exception. Finally, on a positive note: UALR brought in ministers to discuss the findings. I'm told that one African-American preacher said ministers might be the worst people to bring in for such a discussion. He said religion had fomented most of the world's racial and ethnic division and hatred and that churches were more segregated than just about anything. Yes, I call that positive. Truth-telling is the only foundation upon which real progress can be made. I also figure progress is mostly generational. Kids today are less prejudiced than we were, and we were less prejudiced than our parents. This UALR survey may serve later to demonstrate an age differential. Demographic cross-tabulations haven't yet been run. But I'm told they will be soon. I look forward to that. So far all we've seen, though, is a soft white veneer, and you can't build much on that.

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