Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Diversity within a Racial Group: White People in Little Rock, 1957-1959

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Diversity within a Racial Group: White People in Little Rock, 1957-1959

Article excerpt

DIVERSITY HAS BECOME A BUZZWORD. It conveys a desire to open institutions of power to previously excluded groups. This is a worthy goal. But in today's discussions, diversity carries a meaning so restricted as to undermine this goal. In the national media, the word now refers almost exclusively to racial and ethnic diversity, implying that a skin-deep racial and ethnic diversity will guarantee diversity of cultural and philosophical perspectives. Stephen Carter, an African-American law professor and author, complained recently: "In the new rhetoric of affirmative action, it seems, the reason to seek out and hire or admit people of color is that one can have faith that their opinions, their perspective, will be different from the opinion and perspectives of people who are white-who evidently have a distinctive set of views of their own."1

The assumption that black people automatically think differently from white people and that white people think more or less alike-that any given collection of white people lacks diversity-pervades discussions of diversity. This is not necessarily a mark of racial prejudice on the part of those who advocate diversity. One may assume, without prejudice, that American culture is still strictly segregated. But the assumption of intraracial homogeneity may still be incorrect. The best way to test that assumption is to look at a situation in the past that appears to be extremely polarized between black and white, as in the American South during the first two decades after World War II. Intellectuals and other commentators in the national media portrayed white southerners as uniformly provincial and close-minded.2

Little Rock was the scene of the most dramatic confrontation between black and white in the South before the mid-1960s. So polarized and dangerous did the issue become there that federal troops were sent to maintain order. But even in this most dramatic struggle, there was actually great diversity within the white racial group. Although the extreme segregationists in Little Rock insisted that all white people had a common interest, white people never actually coalesced. Their diversity explains why the outcome of the crisis was different from what the segregationists planned. Ironically, northern liberals shared the segregationist assumption, at least insofar as it applied to southern white people. The racial mythology of southern segregationists and northern liberals (still alive in discussions of diversity today) blinded them to the divisions among white people. As things worked out in Little Rock, those divisions made the segregationist consensus impossible to sustain in the face of an integrationist attack, even though the attack in this case came from a small group of integrationists with no mass support.

White diversity in Little Rock revealed itself in several ways, the most obvious of which was ideological. Though the majority of white people in Little Rock, like white southerners elsewhere, favored segregation, they differed so much in the degree of importance they assigned to segregation that they ended up fighting each other as much as they fought the NAACR.3 There were three basic divisions. The first group were the extreme segregationists, who circulated lurid propaganda about the secret "race mixing" desires of integrationists and denounced moderates for cooperating with the Supreme Court. They asserted that the Brown decision was unconstitutional and called on the state legislature to nullify it. They attacked moderates for their corruption by Yankee dollars. Their propaganda was often anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic as well as anti-Yankee and anti-elite.4

The second group were the moderate segregationists, who granted the basic legality of the Brown decision. They sometimes expressed the hope that the Supreme Court would change its mind, but they would have no part of the call to flout federal court orders. Moderates called on the pragmatism of the people, asking them to accept the inevitable: economic development required federal contracts and other subsidies, which in turn required compliance with desegregation orders. …

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