UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson's soft-spoken evenness and lack of drama should not be taken as a lack of grit.
He's been a believer in the advancement of human rights at least since his college days at Harding, when he stood witness to the historic (and violent) desegregation of Ole Miss. He continues that witness today by his decision that UALR will be a “keeper of the flame on the subject of race.”
It's an appropriate calling for an urban university in a mixed neighborhood with a significant enrollment of minority students. It's also the right thing to do. The state's most populous county grapples with race still on a daily basis.
Annually, UALR surveys racial attitudes in Pulaski County and releases the results at a meeting that keeps the public dialogue alive. It isn't always a comfortable exercise, particularly for whites to hear that blacks don't necessarily trust them.
There is, however, some modest good news to report this year.
Over the seven years of surveying, blacks have become less likely to think racial profiling occurs in police stops, traffic stops and questions about theft (though there's a strong sentiment that it still occurs). A majority of survey respondents think civil rights for blacks have improved. Nearly all respondents rate relations between whites and blacks as, at least, “somewhat good.” Compared with Year One of the survey, blacks are less likely to say they have experienced discrimination in education or getting a job, though 38 percent still think discrimination exists.
There was something of a disconnect on crime. Though most people feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods, most of them have bought guns, dogs or burglar alarms for added security. Black people indicate less security about their neighborhoods.
In all, the trend lines point in the right direction — improvement. Those surveyed also recognize that getting to know one another is the best path to still better relations. The general news is cold comfort, though, if you're among the significant percentage of blacks (22 to 30 percent, depending on where they lived) who think they've been treated unfairly at a store, restaurant or theater.
Barely a day passes without a newspaper account that reflects continuing racial tensions.
The racially polarized Little Rock School Board is one example. So maybe it's progress that some black board members have begun to evidence impatience with the black superintendent.
More recently, racially divided members of the Pulaski School Board have dominated headlines (see our cover story this week). The Pulaski School District and the North Little Rock School District also have been in court explaining why they punish a disproportionate number of black students.
Though all deny racial motivation, the charter schools established with public money to allow groups of students to leave conventional school districts tend to have attracted populations that don't reflect the diversity of their communities.
The fight continues, too, on affirmative action. Whites more than blacks thinks the time is past for extra effort in hiring and promotion to account for past discrimination.
Whatever the improvement in attitudes generally, the letters to the editor and angry commenters on local blogs indicate many individuals are still ready to make presumptions and take offense based on race.
I personally take no comfort from one color-blind finding in the UALR survey. Nearly half of both black and white respondents had little or no trust and confidence in mass media. Call us part of the problem.