Reflections on Little Rock

For our 6th RAD.GE reading group meeting we picked Hannah Arendt’s controversial piece “Reflections on Little Rock“, which she published in 1959 in Dissent Magazine. in 1954, The U.S. Supreme Court had declared all laws establishing segregated schools to be unconstitutional, and had called for their desegregation. In response to this nine black students were registered in Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. This was was faced with hostility and opposition, and led to a stand off between the Federal Government and the State of Arkansas. Finally, the black students were allowed to attend school, but were subjected to harassment and discrimination by white students. Hannah Arendt’s piece is a reflection on this specific issue, but touches on larger questions of race, discrimination and society.

However, Hannah Arendt’s essay is considered by scholars to be paradoxical. Arendt herself escaped Nazi Germany just as its anti-semitic pogrom was was peaking. She was aware of Jewish segregation in German society and the havoc is wreaked. However, in this piece, Arendt disagreed with the Supreme Court judgement. Her argument can be summarised into three major points, that a) the school belongs to the social sphere, where discrimination is legitimate, and unlike the the personal and public realm, where upholding political equality is critical and legally necessary, b) the need to maintain the American Republic necessitated a balance of power between the Federal Government and the states, and this was an act of Federal Government overereach and c) children should not be made to fight the political battle of equality, which adults are engaging in.

Why did we pick this reading?

I came across this essay at an event organised at the University of Edinburgh by the  Global Justice Academy and the School of Social and Political Science. Thinking without bannisters: The spirit of Hannah Arendt included a screening of  Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, a documentary film directed by Ada Ushpiz followed by a panel discussion. During the panel discussion, Reflections on Little Rock was referred to, and it was obvious that this piece still continues to discomfort Arendt scholars. It seemed it was hard to come to a clear opinion of this piece.

Hence we picked this piece for RAD.GE, as we felt it was challenging.  Also, of late, Arendt has become quite relevant to decipher totalitarian politics that is mushrooming across the world.

Key points discussed

– In her articulation of the three spheres of life, the private, public and social, Arendt argues the school to be a social space where people had the right to decide who they wanted to associate with. Readers compared Arednt’s understanding of school as a social space with Jürgen Habermas’ idea of structural transformation of the public sphere. Habermas considered the public space to be outside the confines of the home and the state, such as coffee-houses and taverns, where critical thinking was nurtured, and people could meet at an equal footing. Habermas considered the literary society to have emerged from such spaces, and was concerned with their decline, which he attributed to the rise of mass media. However, while Habermas views the social space as a place for transformative politics, and was disturbed by its gradual shrinking with the rise of mass media, Arendt considers the “social realm” as a space where  discrimination was legitimate practice, as long has it was successfully quarantined there.

– This brought in the question of how the role of the state, and indeed the ‘state’ itself conceptualised in such debates? A reader pointed out that the diversity and the mix of the city, where integration has strengthened the social fabric, has been significantly orchestrated by the state. Similarly, the school should be also seen as an extension of the state, which means they are less of a social sphere and more of a public realm, where according to Arendt herself, is a “political realm of equality” (pp.51). However, Hannah Arendt was sensitive to this argument and says in her article:

                     ” The counter-argument that all public schools today are federally supported is weak, for Federal subvention is intended in these instances to match and supplement local contributions and does not transform the schools into Federal institutions, like the federal district courts.” (pp. 54)

In Arendt’s argument, she considers the school to be part of the state and not the Federal Government. But in this piece, she is not explicit about where she stands on the issue of resources and rights. Do schools with full Federal funding then have greater legitimacy in desegregation? Is the state conflating resources with rights?

– This brought us to reflect on state supported religious schools. A reader shared his  experience of studying in a Jewish school, against which a case was filed for not accepting non-Jewish students, to which it finally agreed to when directed by the court. In this case, the school was partially funded by the state. It is interesting to note here, and while other forms of segregration continues in schools, such as religion and gender (separate boys and girls schools), race always emerges as a salient issue. Why is racial segregeration considered unacceptable, while reglious segregration is treated otherwise? Readers discussed how since the 1920’s Roman Catholic Schools in Scotland has been supported with state resouces, and how religious schools such as madrasas are supported with state resources in India. Readers discussed what role does the state have in such social spheres if it leads to growth of radicalism/intolerance that may affect society at large. So when Arendt argues that segregation in schools help to maintain a degree of social stability, doesn’t the opposite also hold true?

– Arendt’s concern in this essay seem to be significantly inspired by her concern of   children being made to carry the burden of the politics of the adults. In Vita Activa, Arendt recounts her days in school when her mother had told her to stand up and leave the class anytime a teacher said anything anti-semitic, and she laughingly mentions that it was a great opportunity to miss school. Arendt was no stranger to children being at the battleground of politics. In this essay, her concern for children and childhood is evident, especially when she writes:

“Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to  change or improve the world? (pp. 50)

” Children are first of all part of the family and home, and this means that they are, or should be, brought up in that atmosphere of idiosyncratic exclusiveness which alone makes a home a home, strong and secure enough enough to shield its young against demands of the social and responsibilities of the political realm.” (pp. 55)

“As for the children, forced integration means a very serious conflict between home and school, between their private and social life, and while such conflicts are common in adult life, children cannot be expected to handle them and therefore should not be exposed to them.” (pp. 55)

In some of the passages, she was remarkably prescient about the long term impacts of making chidren fight each other. While reflecting on the photo (see above) she reflects on the consequences of the youngsters caught on camera indulging in racist jeering of the lone black student, one they “outgrow their present brutality”. In fact the two protagonists of the photo, Elizabeth Eckford (black) and Hazel Bryan (white) were inevitably entwined into a complex relationship for the rest of their lives.

– Was Arendt arguing/defining discrimination from a normative position? It is quite evident that she is more concerned about two things more than discrimination in schools. One of course is the need to respect the three realms of human interaction, the private, the social and the public, and keep the private and the social away from the overreach of the state. The other is to keep balance within the “American Republic”, where she says “The point at stake, therefore, is not the well-being of the Negro population alone, but at least in the long run, the surivival of the Republic”. (pp. 47). The means (i.e. equality) it seemed, had to always keep in mind the end, (i.e, survival of the Republic) and move with ‘caution’ and ‘moderation’. At least that what comes across clearly in the piece.

– What is missing from the essay is Arendt’s position on positive discrimination policies of the state, such as reservations for minorities in schools and public services (race/sex/caste). Does that also constitute a state overreach?

– Finally, there was little doubt that though Arendt writes this essay in the best of her intentions, there are sections that would make the most ardent Arendt reader cringe. Arendt betrays a propensity for thinking in pure categories (the three realms), and some of her sweeping statements betray a rose tinted and historically inaccurate understanding of the American Republic and its racial realities. For example:

“….oppressed minorities were never the best judges on the order of priorities in such matters and there are many instances when they preferred to fight for social opportunity rather than for basic human or political rights.” (pp. 46)

“…for the color problem in world politics grew out of the colonialism and imperialism of the Euopean nations- that is, the one one great crime in which America was never involved.” (pp. 46)

“But this difference between North and South, though still marked, is bound to disappear with the growing industrialisation of the Southern states and plays no role in some of them even today”. (pp.47)

In conclusion, the piece remained troubling, because in certain sections Arendt is exremely throughprovoking and insightful, while in some others, she seems too definitive and arrogant. However, there is little doubt that Reflections on Little Rock not only continues to remain a contentious and provocative read, as it was six decades ago, but it still remains relevant to contemporary discussions on race and discrimination.



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