reflections on reflections on little rock

Eichmann in Jerusalem is one of my favorite books.  I used to think about the phrase “banality of evil” a lot in grad school, so eventually I read the book.  Until this week I had no idea Arendt’s Reflections on Little Rock (pdf) existed.

Her essay is in response to the photos:

Send that nigger back to the jungle!
Send that nigger back to the jungle!

It’s worth noting that these events fucked up Ella Eckford’s life.  This is a description of her from before the events in the photo:

A 10th grader at the segregated Horace Mann High School in the spring of 1957, Elizabeth read habitually and got good grades. She especially loved history. She was essentially a loner, prone to sitting and daydreaming on the big rock in her backyard for hours at a time, thinking that wherever she was, she didn’t quite belong. No one had yet diagnosed her as depressed, but there was a history of the condition in her family.

Depression is the result of gene X environment interactions:

Less than a week into school, Mrs. Huckaby later wrote, Elizabeth came into her office “red-eyed, her handkerchief in a damp ball in her hands.” The harassment was so bad that she wanted to go home early. But things only got worse, as the disciplinary files, in the collection of Mrs. Huckaby’s papers at the University of Arkansas, reveal. Sometime in October: Elizabeth hit with a shower of sharpened pencils. October 28: Elizabeth shoved in hall. November 20: Elizabeth jostled in gym. November 21: Elizabeth hit with paper clip. December 10: Elizabeth kicked. December 18: Elizabeth punched. January 10: Elizabeth shoved on the stairs. January 14: Elizabeth knocked flat. January 22: Elizabeth spat upon. January 29: Elizabeth attacked with spitballs. January 31: Elizabeth asks grandfather to take her home after girls serenade her with humiliating songs in gym class. February 4: Elizabeth has soda bottle thrown at her. February 14: Elizabeth attacked with rock-filled snowballs. March 7: Elizabeth hit by egg. March 12: Elizabeth hit by tomato. “She said that except for some broken glass thrown at her during lunch, she really had had a wonderful day,” Mrs. Huckaby wrote at one point, apparently with a straight face.

It was bad:

Her depression deepened. She quit work and went on non-service veterans’ disability. She rarely went out, except to shop and do laundry; by the third or fourth day each month, she’d be broke. She’d declare “soup-and-casserole months” in order to afford rudimentary toys for her sons. To avoid people, she’d mail-order wash-and-wear clothes from Sears or Montgomery Ward. Twice, she put her boys into foster care. For hours she’d lie on her bed, her face to the wall. Or she would watch soap operas incessantly, then remember nothing about them afterward. Or she’d sleep, some days for 16 hours. “Tell them I’m dead,” she’d have the boys tell reporters when they called. This they were happy to do, for they came to resent these strange intruders who would come to their home from time to time, make Mama cry, then disappear.

The Vanity Fair article is worth reading all the way through. There are other aspects to the story, like the failed attempt at friendship between Elizabeth and the white girl screaming at her.  Or the fact that her son was killed in a suicide-by-cop incident.  She told Hillary Clinton that she felt used by the NAACP, and has said she “wouldn’t do it again, although she’s glad she did it once” (or something to that effect).

Arendt’s essay wasn’t very popular because she actually hates on Brown v. Board of Education, for reasons that include states’ rights.  She later didn’t want it republished.  It was still of great interest to me as a mulatto, since her main point is that anti-miscegenation laws should’ve been the highest priority for the civil rights movement:

To this, Sidney Hook (New Leader, April 13) replied that Negroes were “profoundly uninterested” in these laws; in their eyes, “the discriminatory ban against intermarriages and miscegenation is last in the order of priorities.” I have my doubts about this, especially with the educated strata in the Negro population, but it is of course perfectly true that Negro public opinion and the policies of the NAACP are almost exclusively concerned with discrimination in employment, housing, and education. This is understandable. Oppressed minorities were never the best judges on the order of priorities in such matters and there are many instances in which they preferred to fight for social opportunity rather than for basic human or political rights.

That’s from a short preface she wrote explaining why the article was being published a year late in a different publication.  I’m going to dwell on interesting things she said instead of how tacky that was.

The article itself starts by observing that segregation was “a major stumbling block to American foreign policy.”  The communists were helping colonial resistance movements while we were acting like a bunch of savages.  It was awkward.

Arendt was amazing at conveying contempt for people:

The administration’s Civil Rights program…takes up the issue of segregation, which is a matter of fact in the whole country and a matter of discriminatory legislation only in Southern states. The present massive resistance throughout the South is an outcome of enforced desegregation, and not of legal enforcement of the Negroes’ right to vote. The results of a public opinion poll in Virginia showing that 92% of the citizens were totally opposed to school integration, that 65% were willing to forego public education under these conditions, and that 79% denied any obligation to accept the Supreme Court decision as binding, illustrates how serious the situation is. What is frightening here is not the 92% opposed to integration, for the dividing line in the South was never between those who favored and those who opposed segregation–practically speaking, no such opponents existed–but the proportion of people who prefer mob rule to law-abiding citizenship. The so-called liberals and moderates of the South are simply those who are law-abiding, and they have dwindled to a minority of 21%.

This is the most important (long) passage:

Indeed, with respect to unconstitutional legislation, the Civil Rights bill did not go far enough, for it left untouched the most outrageous law of Southern states–the law which makes mixed marriage a criminal offense.  The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which “the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one’s skin or color or race” are minor indeed.  Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs.  It would have been much more important if this violation had been brought to the attention of the Supreme Court; yet had the Court ruled the anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, it would hardly have felt compelled to encourage, let alone enforce, mixed marriages.

However, the most startling part of the whole business was the Federal decision to start integration in, of all places, the public schools.  It certainly did not require too much imagination to see that this was to burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve.  I think no one will find it easy to forget the photograph reproduced in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, showing a Negro girl, accompanied by a white friend of her father, walking away from school, persecuted and followed into bodily proximity by a jeering and grimacing mob of youngsters.  The girl, obviously, was asked to be a hero–that is, something neither her absent father nor the equally absent representatives of the NAACP felt called upon to be.  It will be hard for the white youngsters, or at least those among them who outgrow their present brutality, to live down this photograph which exposes so mercilessly their juvenile delinquency.  The picture looked to me like a fantastic caricature of progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it.  Have we now come to the point where it is children who are asked to change or improve the world?  And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?

It’s strange seeing “won’t somebody please think of the children?” and it’s apparently sincere. It’s followed by a defense of federalism, on the grounds that decentralization of power is good.  “All this has nothing to do with being a liberal or a conservative.”  It’s true that liberals support states’ rights when that means marijuana legalization or gay marriage.  Imagine if the Commerce Clause hadn’t been interpreted to mean “the government can do anything.”

She then makes a number of distinctions between the private life, “society,” and political life, where discrimination in private is good but legislated discrimination is bad.  Desegregation also infringes on the right to free association and can’t end well.  Let the whites keep their children from the niggers:

To force parents to send their children to an integrated school against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies–the private right over their children and the right of free association.  As for the children, forced integration means a very serious conflict between home and school, between their private and their social life, and while such conflicts are common in adult life, children cannot be expected to handle the and therefore should not be exposed to them.  It has often been remarked that man is never so much of a conformer–that is, a purely social being–as in childhood.  The reason is that every child instinctively seeks authorities to guide it into the world in which he is still a stranger, in which he cannot orient himself by his own judgment.  To the extent that parents and teachers fail him as authorities, the child will conform more strongly to his own group, and under certain conditions the peer group will become his supreme authority.  The result can only be a rise of mob and gang rule, as the news photograph we mentioned above so eloquently demonstrate [sic].  The conflict between a segregated home and and a desegregated school, between family prejudice and school demands, abolishes at one stroke both the teachers’ and the parents’ authority, replacing it with the rule of public opinion among children who have neither the ability nor the right to establish a public opinion of their own.

It’s like reading Slate or The New Republic.  A liberal making all the same points as conservatives.  Too clever by half?  You have to actually think about what she’s saying instead of relying on liberal vs. conservative cliches.  This is from the olden times, when the public sort of understood civics.

I think a lot of what she’s saying looks better over time.  We sacrificed Ella Eckford so that…schools could still be segregated nowadays.  The slogan of the day is “Black Lives Matter,” because the basic humanity of black people still isn’t obvious.  Perhaps if basic humanity had been emphasized from the outset…

On the other hand, haters gonna hate.  Miscegenation laws are abolished.  The mixed-race children have to deal with it no matter where they go to school.  They don’t have a “kind.”  You can’t hide the crappiness of the world from children.  Jehovah’s Witness literature reminded me during childhood that “Human plans have proved to be disastrous. leaving the present generation a legacy of misery and the most dismal of future prospects.”  Sometimes Jehovah’s Witness really do speak The Truth.

Periodically I come across reminders that my family weirds people out even when I’m not looking for them.  For example, comment threads on The Archdruid Report:

One of the sadder examples is a situation that comes up reliably every six months or so, where the production/ad agency team will decide they want to do something “new” and “edgy” by doing a commercial with an interracial black/white couple, something they’ve exposed to plenty of times in the media but probably not very often in person. And what starts to happen almost every time is that, when they see two actors of different races being all kiss and lovey right there in front of them in the audition, they start having second thoughts, because something about the real experience – not the manipulated media one – but the real experience of watching two people convincingly interact like that makes them feel uncomfortable in a way they didn’t anticipate.

It’s for realz.  This was controversial:


Arendt herself said she never personally went to the South because it’s gross.  I don’t think she really got it that “miscegenation” was the main pretext for lynching people, mutilating them and burning them alive.  She probably took education for granted, not having coming from a cultural background in which teaching you to read was recently a criminal offense.  Who will take these anti-miscegenation cases to court, if not educated black people?

The enriching effect of education on life is at least as great as the effect of marriage.  Once you know something, it stays with you until age-related dementia.  Spouses say they do that, but only say it half the time.

White people haven’t had to argue amongst themselves about whether marriage or literacy mean more to them, and that’s the most important aspect of the situation.