Tagged: “Reflections on Little Rock”

Arendt at 108

Hannah Arendt published an essay in 1959 about the controversy surrounding the effort to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. In this essay, Arendt criticized this effort, affirmed William Faulkner’s assessment that “enforced integration is no better than enforced segregation,” and argued that the “social custom of segregation” was not “unconstitutional” (Arendt 2003: 202). According to Arendt, only when this custom was legally enforced should it be considered unconstitutional. In other words, Arendt was opposed to enforced segregation – hence she approved civil rights legislation that put de jure segregation out of business – but not voluntary segregation. She was particularly disturbed by the fact that integration began in public schools, which she felt shifted the burden from adults to children, such as the nine black students who endured the brunt of “white” ire in Little Rock. Referring to a photograph of a young woman being shielded from the “mob,” Arendt wrote:

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 the children who are being asked to change or improve the world? And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards? (Arendt 2003: 203-204).

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(Elizabeth Eckford, copyright Bettman/Corbis)

This argument is informed by Arendt’s conceptual and ethical distinction between the political and social spheres of life. Reflecting the model of the Greek polis, which she found to be an exemplary model of the political public sphere (and the vita activa), Arendt argued that the equality that was necessary in political life should not be imposed upon the social sphere. Echoing, perhaps unwittingly, one sentence in the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (1897), she wrote:

Segregation is discrimination enforced by law, and desegregation can do no more than abolish the laws enforcing discrimination; it cannot abolish discrimination and force equality upon society, but it can, and indeed must, enforce equality within the body politic. Only there are we all equals. (Arendt 2003: 204).

The object of the [14th] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. (Plessy v. Ferguson 1896, 544).

This opinion is another instance of Arendt’s allergic reaction to what used to be called the social question. In its classical form, the social question referred to the status of the working classes and Jewish citizens (as a religious minority) in the newly forming democratic-constitutional states of Western Europe; more recent forms of the social question pertain to the status of women and racial and ethnic minorities. In her political theory, the social (which Arendt treats as the private matters of the oikos, the household) had no place in the political public sphere (the polis); in other words, political discourse should not concern itself with policies aimed to create conditions of equality in the social sphere (construed as the sphere of private life). The effort to achieve equality in political rights is permissible; the effort to achieve equality in social existence is not. “What equality is to the body politic – its innermost principle – discrimination is to society” (Arendt 2003: 205). Arendt’s intention in “Reflections on Little Rock,” I believe, is to extend an ethical affirmation to “social differences” and, at the same time, to criticize the use of the social differences as a justification for the denial of equal political rights.

Let me note a few things about Arendt’s reflections: first, today we think nothing of asking “children” or the “younger generation” to change the world, namely, they are seen as the basis for a “post-racial” social order. According to one popular narrative of Obama’s election in 2008, racial antipathy is a disposition common to older generations, but not to younger ones. Second, the distinction Arendt makes between the political and social is easier to maintain in theory than in practice. Social inequality has been contested on all fronts (the latest battleground is struggle over the legal recognition of “same-sex marriage,” which is viewed as impacting social equality). Third: one view expressed by Arendt continues to predominate (in a slightly different form) in contemporary social life. Whereas Arendt attributed natural differences among individuals and groups to the realm of the social, and race for her meant visible, physical differences, there is today a vocal consensus that what could be called “natural cultural differences” are self-evident features of society: one instance of natural cultural differences is the racial group. Moreover, what Arendt called the “social custom of segregation” that is based on these self-evident racial groups is as tolerated today as it was in the past.

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Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” in Responsibility and Judgment. (Shocken Books, 2003), 193-213.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).