Little Rock, Arkansas, is still a potent symbol 40 years after the forcible integration of Central High School. That’s why President Clinton chose Central High as the site of a speech in late September, one of many that he intends to deliver on race relations over the coming year. Paralyzed by the numerous scandals that he has brought upon his own administration, Clinton has abandoned the constitutional responsibilities of his office to act as a personal mediator between the races.
Biting his lip and looking concerned, the President told the crowd gathered in Little Rock, “Today, children of every race walk through the same door, but then they often walk down different halls . . . they eat at different tables. They even sit in different parts of the bleachers at the football game. Far too many communities are all white, all black, all Latino, all Asian.”
Lest anyone object that the picture that he had just painted looks a lot like multiculturalism and diversity, Clinton went on to say that “we have to remember . . . the painful lessons of the civil wars and the ethnic cleansing around the world.” He summed up almost half a century of social engineering with a monumentally irrelevant play on words; “The alternative to integration is not isolation or a new separate but equal, it is disintegration.”
Clinton’s speech illustrates the growing gulf between those who wield power in this country and the average man, white or black. Forty-three years after Brown v. Board of Education, American cities are returning to neighborhood schools (or, in Clinton’s words, “resegregating”). Indeed, a few days before Clinton’s speech, the school board in Little Rock took the first steps towards returning to neighborhood schools.
In Cleveland, an all-black school board, frustrated with declining test scores and federal control of the city’s educational system, has thrown its support behind neighborhood schools. And in Oklahoma City, which Clinton has visited numerous times since the bombing of the Murrah federal building, black parents, distiaught over poor academic standards at integrated institutions, joined together and demanded a return to neighborhood schools. Within months, test scores began to climb, even though the schools in black neighborhoods apparently receive less funding than those in white neighborhoods.
In 1954, America’s public schools were among the best in the world; today, American students consistently rank near the bottom in math and science. Colleges and universities have been forced to offer an increasing number of remedial courses, not only in math and science, but in writing and reading. Here in Rockford, children as young as five years old stand on street corners at 6:00 A.M., waiting for a bus to take them to a school across town, even though they could walk to the school down the block.
“There are still people who can’t get over it, who can’t let it go, who can’t go through the day unless they have somebody else to look down on,” the President declared. He should know. Despite his best efforts, America’s experiment in forced integration is coming to an end, but it will leave great devastation in its wake.
Those who oppose forced busing often claim that “children don’t learn anything on a bus.” That’s not quite true. They may not learn how to read or to add, but they do learn that their political leaders view them as pawns in an elaborate scheme to remake society, and that the President and the federal courts are willing to sacrifice their educahon in order to reeducate their parents. And learning that, they also learn to view the federal government with increasing skepticism.
As the neighborhood school movement spreads across the country and local school systems throw off the chains of federal control, America may actually become the kind of country that the President claims he wants it to be: “An America that makes sure no future generation of our children will have to pay for our mistakes with the loss of their innocence.