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Ever since the Central High School integration crisis in 1957, the image of public education in Arkansas in the national consciousness has ... not been one associated with progressive best-practices, but Arkansas public schools did turn out a president and a number of world class artists and scientists. Today, though, the state ranks near the bottom of most indexes of student achievement.

In City's School Discrimination Lawsuit, Burden Of Proof Is 'Did They Mean To?'

National Park Service
Little Rock's Central High School

It’s been 60 years since Central High School was forced to desegregate, but a federal lawsuit now claims the Little Rock School District is racially biased when it comes to investing in facilities and programs.

Proving that’s true in fact won’t be enough to win the case, though. The suit's authors will have to prove district officials set out to discriminate.

The lawsuit, scheduled for trial next week, is brought by state representative and local civil rights attorney John Walker, who claims the school district provides worse buildings and fewer academic opportunities in its majority-black schools.

At issue in the case is the alleged disrepair of some majority black schools and the recent construction of a new middle school in West Little Rock, a part of town that is overwhelmingly white.

University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black says, to win, plaintiffs must show the district treats black students differently on purpose.

“Did you act knowing it would have some racial inequity, or did you act because it would cause the racial inequity? So it’s really just this motivation and purpose question.”

The district says it has not discriminated against black students, and there is no proof of racial motivation in facilities spending.

Many students, mostly white, have left the district for charters or private schools. Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus said at the time of announcing the construction he hoped  the new school will draw families back in.

David Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis, says the “intent” requirement is a vestige of days when segregationists broadcast their goals and racism was written into the law.

“I think, a lot of times, you have situations where a large part of a community will believe that a decision has a racial component to it but can’t prove it because there is smoking gun. There is no overt racial purpose.”

"I think what the government would say is every action they take is going to benefit some people more than others." - John DiPippa, dean of the William H. Bowen School of Law

Black agrees that, today, showing motive can be an obstacle, and sometimes school officials aren’t even aware if they are biased.

“And that’s why people don’t bring that many intentional discrimination cases, not because they aren’t happening, but because getting into the mind or motivation of state actors is very hard now given that they don’t make racially discriminatory statements in public anymore.”

To win such a case, the district must only show there was a reason for its facilities decisions other than race. Finances, for example, or population growth.

Indeed, the “intent” standard is meant to let officials, rather than courts, deal with complicated social problems, says John DiPippa, interim dean of the William H. Bowen School of Law in Little Rock.

“I think what the government would say is every action they take is going to benefit some people more than others.

“It would become an unreasonable way to manage a government, to make policy, if every time the government took an action that might have a slightly more detrimental impact to one group than another, they would have to come to court to justify it.”

To Professor Kiel, the case echoes mid-century separate-but-equal facilities cases that came before the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts. In fact, several published reports say school districts across the country have re-segregated over recent decades.

The trial begins September 13th in Little Rock.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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