Multiculturalism in Arkansas

Multiculturalism in action.

I learned something from one of my fellow students tonight. I commented that every “multicultural” event I’ve ever attended in Arkansas is predominantly attended by black folks. She said that when you advertise an event as multicultural back here, that usually means black.

It was a “town hall” meeting about racism put on by two local radio stations (with the same owner, imagine that), one with a mainly black audience, and one with a nearly exclusively white audience. It made me think about a lot of things. It was supposed to be a “rhetorical” observation trip, to see deliberative rhetoric in action, but as far as I’m concerned it was purely epideictic: praise and blame. There was a lot of that going on. I glanced down at the notepad of the black gentleman sitting next to me. He was taking notes, and the header on the page he put a few short comments in was “Notes to Self.” The first item he had written there was “Quit blaming yourself”

Racial issues are a weird thing in Arkansas. I was reminded that there is a lot of history that I wasn’t here for (I’ve only been here six years or so). People have long memories, and institutions are slow to change. I did not know, for example, that the governing board of the University of Arkansas consists of nine white folks, and one black person. It almost became ten white people last year, due to a proposed appointment by the lily-white Baptist minister governor (who looks a lot like Gomer Pyle; talks like him too). As the white senator who was present read the list of committees in state government, noting the racial imbalance in every aspect of state government, it was appalling. Why does this power structure survive? There does seem to be a big problem. The figure that was thrown out regarding the balance of population was 2.5 million whites, and around 500,000 blacks statewide.

Then, I started to think about my day to day experience. The faculty of my state-funded university is primarily white. However, it seems quite likely that this has as much to do with the fact that as universities go, they pay poorly. The population of the school is nearly 30% black. There is one black assistant professor in the rhetoric department, added only a year or so ago, and one who is in the process of becoming tenured faculty. I suppose there are about 15 full-time professors, so that’s a little better than the norm but not much. They actually went after Professor Cox, I think, to come back after going through the undergraduate program here and getting his Ph.D. in Texas. There are no “good-ole boys” in the department though, and the disparity has more to do with the applicants for openings rather than hiring practices, at least in my opinion. The best and brightest black students move out of state.

And in my limited experience, there are a lot of great black students. A lot of black students in my classes are the product of private schools. My classes, just by the luck of the draw I think, are a bit heavier on the black side than the university average. I adjusted my teaching strategy as a result. I decided I needed to use more black authors.

But the problem is, now that I think about it, I’m painting a pretty dismal picture of the white race. Most of the most memorable essays were written by black writers. I need to dig up some better white folks to use, I think. The black writers I used were almost too good. I may be slighting the white students, making them feel a little inferior. I need to work on that. The white writers I used were good too, but a bit more inaccessible than the black writers, even for the white students.

One of my fellow rhetoric students, Jason (the preacher) who also teaches in public school, brought up that he was audited in his class to make sure he displayed enough black faces on the posters on the walls. He asked if “counting” the presence of black faces in the classroom wasn’t just an artificial token system that had a bad effect on the atmosphere of the classroom. No one answered him. Another student in my class observed that there was not a single Mexican face in the meeting. They are the largest growing minority group back here, and it won’t be long before they overtake the black population. There was little going on except blame-casting, mostly at institutional and media practices. I never turn on the media, so I can’t say, and the institutional guidelines toward fair practices seem to be firmly in place. So what’s the problem? I suspect it’s just money, pure and simple. This is a poor state, with the most poorly paid teachers in the US. Of course that makes getting an education cheaper, and that’s why I’m doing it here. Another side of the “low-pay” equation is that there are few real prima-donnas here. There are some brilliant people, working at a second-tier school because they love it, instead of for money alone.

In the town-hall meeting a guy got up and claimed that black people weren’t allowed to rent at any of the better apartment complexes in West Little Rock. I live in West Little Rock, the “rich” side of town. A black family lives next door. Most of the complex are Indian or Pakistani. I just had to shake my head. While I wouldn’t call it upscale, it’s certainly middle class. I just don’t get it. I think the money issues are a much bigger factor than residual racism. Sometimes I think it’s just time to get over it. There are some staggering imbalances that need to be taken care of, this is sure, but I don’t think that they are primarily racist issues. It’s about the money.

One of the members of the panel was a black judge and reverend, and he kept ranting about racism in the system. A fellow from the nation of Islam (who held up one of their newspapers as a political stunt at the end) was quick to point out that the judge attended white schools growing up, and lived in a white neighborhood. I hear a lot of rhetoric about racism, and it’s hard to figure out who to believe. I see a lot of black folks “movin’ on up” and later, movin’ on out. I know that there are a lot of pockets of white whackos out in the sticks, but tonight I also heard from a black man in a wheelchair who was consistently reelected to a seat on the city council of Jonesboro, by margins of up to 70%, in a town that has a black population of 7%. I really can’t figure this place out.

Reading an article about The Color Blind Web this morning worried me too. I wonder if I should put a banner up listing my color? I suppose the majority is rather pinkish, with a big patch of strawberry-blondish-brown with a few streaks of gray hair on top, offset with rapidly graying blue eyes? Why does this still matter? There were police at this town-hall meeting tonight. A patrol-car pulled out of the parking-lot as I left. Was it because it was a “multicultural event”? One great question came up tonight. White teenagers are not chased out of the Kmart parking lot a couple of blocks from me when they gather on a Saturday night. Black teenagers, in a similar spot not far from the university are. Now that’s a thought provoking question. I’ve seen that in action. As much as I wish I could, I can’t turn my back on racism.