You’ve probably been seeing a lot about the Little Rock Nine this week as we are honoring the courage of the nine ‘integrating’ students in 1957 and use this anniversary to reflect on the past sixty years.
And, no surprise to any of you, the bottom line of all of these discussions is that we can’t be self-congratulatory about How Far We’ve Come. Our schools are not only still very segregated, they are increasingly segregating. The late 1980s was the peak of school integration and it’s been a downhill slide ever since.
In our contemporary movement of integration advocacy, we must remember the trauma of desegregation, the violence that the Little Rock Nine and kids like them faced as they shouldered the work, as they lived its backlash. One of these Little Rock students, MinniJean Brown Trickey, said in an interview for the Guardian that the experience for her was heartbreaking. “Of course, you know as an ‘American’ even living in a segregated society you do all the anthems and the pledges and you’re hiding under the desk from the Russians… So the heartbreak was: ‘I’m supposed to be living in a democracy. What? These people hate me. They don’t know me. They want to kill me.”
Our work today cannot replicate the brutality of the past; we cannot put the responsibility of integration on the backs of kids who are already enduring racist and oppressive systems. We cannot ask more of people who have always gotten less. The inequitable systems we have in place were not built for everyone to win and we cannot be saying that this system is unfair, you are suffering those consequences, you didn’t break it, but (let’s help) you fix it.
We ALL have to fix it. Together. And that includes the people who’ve long opted out and who’ve long benefitted from it.
In The Past Lane Podcast, Little Rock 1957 and the Problem of Civil Rights Memory (definitely worth the listen), host Edward O’Donell talks with Erin Krutko Devlin (author of Remember Little Rock) about, among other things, passive resistance. If massive resistance refers to loud and menacing demonstrators spitting on students or carrying torches in Charlottesville, passive resistance is the quiet and stealthy working around of a system. In the context of Brown v. Board era desegregation, passive resistance is how school districts complied with this decision by doing as little as possible as slowly as possible. “The strategies of passive resistance,” Devlin notes, “were jus as if not more effective at stymying integration as the massive resistance mob of white protestors.”
Passive resistance can also been seen in the myriad ways that privilege interrupts integration. The Civil Rights era fight has not given rise to integration or lasting desegregation… largely because of privilege. White folks have done too much Gardendaling, too much lawsuiting, too much gaming the system, too much opportunity hoarding.
Passive resistance is becoming or voting for policymakers who protect our privilege (and who, oftentimes, are themselves parents).
Passive resistance, too, is the conflation of desegregation with integration. Simply ‘moving bodies’ and ‘changing demographics’ does not meaningful and inclusive integration make.
Passive resistance is also waiting for policy and discounting the power of one’s own choices, behaviors and actions (impact — not intention!) (for better — or worse!).
Let us honor the memory of the Little Rock Nine by standing up and carrying forward… one community at a time, one vote at a time. It may take awhile, but it’s way past time to start.