Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Little Rock

I usually have very little good to say about the US military, particularly when they're fighting an illegal and immoral war in Iraq. But 50 years ago, the US Army gave its most honourable service, when soldiers from the 101st Airbone Division escorted a group of nine teenagers to school:

The teenagers were African-American, and the school was Little Rock Central High School. They were legally enrolled, but initially could not attend due to the intervention of the Arkansas National Guard, the local police, and finally a screaming mob of racists. So the army was called in, and on 25 September, 1957, the Little Rock Nine finally made it to school, escorted by soldiers with fixed bayonets. However, it wasn't the end of the battle - the students faced significant harassment around school, and the next year the Little Rock School Board shut down all its high schools rather than accept desegregation. It wasn't until September 1959 that they were fully integrated.

But while we should celebrate this victory over racism, we should also recognise that it is under threat. 50 years after Little Rock, America's schools are resegregating, and the old evil of "seperate but [un]equal" is re-emerging. Little Rock Central High itself is described in a recent article as "really two different schools, separate and unequal, under one roof", in which "[t]he blacks go to different classes, sit on separate sides of the cafeteria, have different, and far lower, levels of performance and expectations". While the Reuters report blames this on changing demographics, that's difficult to believe when white families bus their kids for miles to avoid sending them to their neighbourhood school. As for what this means for the educational prospects of black students, abandoned and ghettoised, I recommend Jonathan Kozol's Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid. White flight and differential spending mean that where white children get to learn in clean classrooms with books, black children get to learn with the rats, in dirty, leaky, often unsafe buildings, in schools which lack toilets, let alone reading material. "Equality of opportunity?" Only if you're rich and white...

(Hat tip: Political Animal)