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Blog > Issues > Equality Under the Law > Terrence Roberts discusses racial quotas and discrimination in Connecticut schools

Terrence Roberts discusses racial quotas and discrimination in Connecticut schools

December 17, 2019 I By PLF

In 1957, armed National Guard officers guarded Terrence Roberts and eight other black high school students as they tried to walk into the all-white Little Rock Central High School for the first time. Roberts and the other students were known as the Little Rock Nine and they were the first black students to attend a white school in Arkansas after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

On December 5, 2019, Dr. Roberts joined the Connecticut Parents Union and PLF at a rally to fight back against the racial quotas that are locking minority students out of some of Connecticut’s best schools.

Dr. Roberts sat down with the Connecticut Parents Union president, Gwen Samuel, to discuss his lifelong fight against discrimination, and why black families in Connecticut are fighting discriminatory laws in their communities more than 60 years after the Little Rock Nine stood up against bigotry.

 

Gwen Samuel:

First, Dr. Roberts, on behalf of the Connecticut Parents Union and Connecticut Children and Families, we’re just honored to have you here in Connecticut giving us a first-hand account of desegregation efforts in our country. In Connecticut, we are really struggling with race politics, where the schools are using race to determine who gains access to a quality education and who does not.

So the first question I have for you is, what kind of things did you hear from adults, both black and white, as you were trying to attend Little Rock Central High?

Dr. Roberts:

Oh, a full range of responses across the board. At one extreme, there were people who were 100 percent supportive of what we were doing. At the other extreme, there were people who thought we were causing trouble, and then everything in between.

And when you look at it, you can find a rationale for every position, because those folk who were very supportive obviously had been thinking about the need for change for a long time. Those at the other extreme who thought we were causing trouble were focused on what might happen to them. They might lose jobs. They might get kicked out of rented houses or apartments. They might wind up having loans foreclosed. They might wind up being dynamited themselves. So there was great fear involved and you could understand where they were coming from.

Gwen Samuel:

Tell me about your parents and the role they played in your life and in your education.

Dr. Roberts: 

My parents were both born in Little Rock in the same year, 1920. And when you think about what they must have seen and heard growing up in that era, it’s not surprising that they were sort of fed up with the way things were. So they supported me 100 percent in my decision to join this group of nine [the Little Rock Nine]. As young kids they heard about a lynching that happened right in the heart of Little Rock, in the heart of the black business district. And so, I’m sure that had some part to play in their worries about what was going on. We never talked about it per se, but it was always clear that they were not going to challenge my decision to be a part of the nine. And they told me in no uncertain terms we, “We support your decision 100 percent.”

Gwen Samuel: 

Wow. I just had to pause from hearing that. I can’t imagine how painful that was for them to go through. Today, we aren’t dealing with physical lynchings, but there are just still so many parents who are so afraid to even speak up and fight for their children. So I just appreciate your family’s courage in a time when it was so dangerous to fight back against discrimination.

Dr. Roberts:

Well, when you look historically at us as a people, there are very few people who are willing to put themselves on the line. The fear is overwhelming for most people. In fact, there were about 150 kids who volunteered to attend the white school. But then we had to go home and explain to our parents that we had volunteered, at which point there were these discussions—to put it mildly. You could hear the sound of vetoes all over Little Rock. “No, no. Are you kidding me? My kid’s blood is not going to flow in the gutters of Little Rock.” And so, there it was rippling through society.

My next-door neighbor, a black woman who worked in the cafeteria at Central—it was an odd thing that in the so-called segregated system, most of the cafeteria workers were black females—she feared that she would lose her job because of what we were doing. She accused me face-to-face of causing trouble. And I understood. I mean, her husband had died. She was supporting herself. And this was her way of making it happen. Her fear was that, “They’re going to fire us all.” They didn’t, of course, but those were real fears for people.

Gwen Samuel:

This reminds me of when the Connecticut Parents Union took this case, because there’s two cases: Robinson v. Wentzell, which are several black and Hispanic parents who are suing because their children were denied access to schools. And I remember going to the same courthouse last year and one of the lead plaintiffs of Sheff v. O’Neill coming up to me and saying, “You caused this.” I couldn’t understand what she meant. And she was like, “Your organization has put fuel to the conversations. You have put a spotlight on something we’ve been able to contain.” How she felt reminds me of how that cafeteria worker felt.

Dr. Roberts:

Right, right, right, right.

Gwen Samuel:

That fear of the unknown. You know?

So how did you being one of the Little Rock Nine affect your family?

Dr. Roberts:

Well, they were impacted in many ways because once it was discovered who we were and where we lived, we had to contend with the drive-bys and real violence. Attackers’ usual weapons of choice were shotguns and dynamite and rocks. I warned my neighbors not to park too close to our home because the assumption would be that’s our car, and it would be damaged. One neighbor couldn’t quite figure it out and his car was damaged three different times, which was unfortunate. The irony of the thing was we didn’t own a car.

And we got hate mail by the bushel and phone calls 24/7.

Gwen Samuel:   

Wow.

Dr. Roberts:

To give you a sense of how my mind works, when I got the hate mail, I would read it and see all the misspellings and grammar mistakes, so I would want to send back a corrected copy to whoever wrote it. But they wouldn’t send any return address, so I didn’t know where it was supposed to go. But their grammar was atrocious.

Gwen Samuel:  

It’s just so amazing because these are not the stories that are taught in our classrooms today. People are saying we’re past that time and ignoring what happened not that long ago.

Dr. Roberts: 

I think too many parents have chosen to “put it behind them.” A lot of parents my age have said to me, “We’re not going to teach our kids anything about what we had to go through.” I said, “Really? Because if you don’t, I’m going to wind up seeing them in therapy.” I did on occasion. Because if you don’t equip kids to handle what they’re going to face, they fall apart. They don’t know that they’re dealing with.

Gwen Samuel: 

That’s right.

Dr. Roberts:

It’s just foreign to them. I have so many stories about that. I had a young man when I was at UCLA, came to my office, young black student, first year, very upset because he had discovered he had a racist professor. He was telling me his problem, and he told me, “I have a racist professor.” I didn’t say anything so he said again, “I have a racist professor.”

“Young man,” I said, “I heard that. You told me that.”

He said, “Well, that’s my problem.”

I said, “No, son, that’s not your problem. That’s your reality.”

And then I was angry. Not at him, but because somebody failed in their responsibility of educating him about the reality of life. They sent him out like a sheep among wolves. He couldn’t contend with it. Here he is in my office. He’s upset. He’s anxious. He’s angry, all this stuff. That could’ve all been avoided by helping him understand, “This is what you will face. Here are some ways to deal with it. Here’s how I’ve dealt with it. You’re going to have to find your own ways as you go forward.”

Gwen Samuel:     

That’s so important to have those guiding teachers. Were there any teachers or friends who were particularly special to you or who helped you achieve a sense of belonging in all that surrounded you as a young man.”

Dr. Roberts:

I mean, you have to have your posse. You have to have people who believe in you, who are willing to help. My first-grade teacher was one. She was absolutely essential. When she gave us those instructions about taking charge of our own learning, taking charge of our education, that made a difference. She said, “I will teach you what I know, but I know very little.” She was that honest.

A good teacher is one who will accept that honesty and freely share what they know but also lets you know that what they’re telling you is not everything. You’ve got to dig and find out what else is there. But she gave us tools for how to do it. I think that’s what’s missing in education today. Kids don’t learn how to learn.

Gwen Samuel:   

How do you think we should talk about integration today, and how should we talk about discrimination?

Dr. Roberts:

Well, for one thing, I think we should talk about it.

Gwen Samuel:   

Thank you! Yes.

Dr. Roberts:              

Now, that is something that many people don’t agree with me on. I’ll give you an illustration. I was doing a program in Southern California once and this woman says to me, she said, “Terry Roberts, it’s all your fault. If you would just sit down and shut up, one day all the bigots are going to be dead.” Now, there’s a lot of stuff problematic with that.

Gwen Samuel:

Yes.

Dr. Roberts:

One, because in her mind, she’s situating the issue, the problem, in relationships between bigots and their chosen victims. But that’s not our issue. It goes much deeper than that. It’s ideological. It’s fundamental. It’s stuff that informs our policies and practices and institutions and systems. It’s woven in it. So it’s not about bigots going to die. And she was wrong about that, too, because bigots drop seeds before they die.

Gwen Samuel:

Wow. Okay, that was powerful. I can’t wait to replay this. I’ll probably play that segment over and over again. Okay, so how should we talk about discrimination. Is that both the same, integration and discrimination?

Dr. Roberts:

Well, when you talk about the issue of discrimination and prejudice and oppression, all these things, many people don’t feel comfortable enough to have a conversation about it. That’s why I say you have to talk about it. You have to help people understand that talking about something is not a part of the problem. It’s a way of informing and alerting people to the fact that here are issues that have been unexamined for centuries. We’ve never had an open, public conversation of any note. When Clinton was first president, he offered to have some “dialogues about race.” I remember that. But those turned into pretty much political photo ops for a lot of folk. Nothing really happened. We haven’t had anything near that. You didn’t have it with other presidents. Even Lyndon Johnson in all of his zeal to provide the Great Society, there was no room to have open discussion about what was going on.

But the problem was people didn’t understand at any level what was underneath all of that. What’s driving these problems? You know? I got invited to do a talk to a group called Communities and Families. And they’ve been around for over 100 years. I read their literature, and they have developed the skills of solving social problems. They have safety nets, so people don’t fall through the cracks. So when I got up to talk, I said, “I commend you for all this stuff you’ve done. But have you ever given thought to figuring out why you need those safety nets in the first place? Maybe you could turn your attention to those things, and then that would save you from having to build any more nets.”

Gwen Samuel:

Wow. I’m voting for you for the next governor in my state.

Dr. Roberts:

I’m not taking it!

Gwen Samuel: 

I know, I know. So is it possible for black children to have a quality education without going to school with white children?

Dr. Roberts:

Of course it is. Of course it is. That’s never been an essential criteria. I think what happened with the Brown decision was actually somewhat problematic because there was a great deal of emphasis put on the need for black people to feel better about themselves by being in classrooms with white kids. There was a study two black psychologists conducted that illustrates this. They had young black kids choose whether they wanted a white doll or a black doll. And the black kids routinely chose the white doll. That was just too unfortunate. The real issue has always been resources, materials…

Gwen Samuel:

Yes, yes.

Dr. Roberts:  

…opportunities.

Gwen Samuel:

Yes.

Dr. Roberts:

See, when we were at Little Rock Central, they told the group of nine we could not participate in extracurricular activities, that was a part of the package. Had we not agreed to do that, it was off. So we signed an affidavit, “We won’t go to basketball games. We won’t be in the choir. We won’t do track. We won’t do anything.” Now, the reason they said this was necessary was because “we can’t guarantee your safety.” No, no, that was not the issue. They did not want us to build any kind of social alliances with the white students. That’s one of the great fears of those who resist efforts to integrate. It’s all about sects. They don’t want people getting that close to you because they know after time, those barriers are going to be broken down. So when the school said, “You can’t be involved in extracurricular activities,” they were trying to stop that. When you talk with different people and associate with others, you have conversations, you learn about each other. Sharing that makes both people stronger, and their ties are stronger not just with the two people but with others to whom they’re introduced. That was all taken away from us.

Gwen Samuel:

That’s interesting because I started to work with the Asian community more intentionally in Connecticut. And by sharing our knowledge, our communities, how we grew up, our origins, I’ve learned so much.

Ok, I have one final question. Is there a connection between the Brown v. Board of Education decision and what’s happening to black students today in Connecticut as it relates to the racial quotas?

Dr. Roberts: 

I don’t know specifically. Now, Brown forced states to allow black students to attend white schools. But theoretically, it’s interesting that there’s never been that much emphasis on the fact that white students were barred from going to black schools as well.

Gwen Samuel:

Wow.

Dr. Roberts: 

So I think what happened was because the emphasis was always on blacks coming in to these other schools, the mindset was that they will take over. And steps were made to undercut the impact of that. So discord was sowed. A lot of black teachers lost jobs. A lot of black students wound up in places where they could feel the intense hatred, and that was not healthy.

I mean, at Central, of course, we experienced that full blast. I had a teacher, an English teacher, who confronted me one day and said, “Why do you want to come to our school?” Emphasis on our school. “Why don’t you go back to your own school?” Emphasis on my school. Right? When I heard that, my first thought was the woman has a mental health problem. First of all, she’s implying that both of us have some ownership in these public institutions. Now, I’m thinking, “She’s a teacher, and she should know better. Why is she even using that language?” But she obviously wasn’t able to think beyond that. That was her limit. So I didn’t respond. I thought, “If she’s that far removed from where I am in thinking, we can’t have a decent conversation because it will come to nothing.” And if she’s ever willing and able to have a conversation I’d be more than willing. But I’m not going to waste time talking to somebody who appears to be other than what she reports to be. She says she’s a teacher.

Gwen Samuel:

Wow.

Dr. Roberts: 

She claimed to be a teacher, but she didn’t act like a teacher.

And ironically, we had expert teachers in the all-black schools. We had people who were well educated. You see, the State of Arkansas would not allow black students to go to college in Arkansas. But because of this so-called separate but equal law that was in effect, they had to pay for them to go to school outside Arkansas. The separate but equal law was so crazy. They would pay money to send black people out of state…

Gwen Samuel:

Out of state to go to school.

Dr. Roberts:

It’s not new. It happened in the 18th century, 1787, I believe. James McCune Smith, he’s a historical figure. You got to read about him. James McCune Smith was in New York. He wanted to go to school. “Nope, you’re black. You can’t do it.” Now, the odd thing was he could pass for a white. But he was considered black. But still, they would not allow him to go to school.

He had to go to Scotland. He went to Scotland, earned a medical degree, and while he was there, he picked up a pharmaceutical degree, came back to New York, set up a practice, and began to work with Frederick Douglass on The North Star, got involved in newspaper publication, did a lot of amazing things.

So we had educated black men and women from Little Rock who came back, but no one would hire them. They were trained in professions, but they couldn’t get jobs except for two things: They could teach in the school system, or they could work for the U.S. Postal Service. Those were the options for them. So we had access to all of these people. And they wanted us to achieve excellence. They promoted excellence. They did everything they could.

Gwen Samuel:    

Wow, you see in Connecticut we’re treated like such victims. They’ll tell us all the terrible things that happened during the civil rights era, your era. But there were people that despite the oppression, despite the challenges, they overcame. But those stories aren’t told here, and we’re treated as victims. Like you really need to be saved. You are not capable. We have to bus you across town. And they’re sending a message that you have to be in a classroom with a white and Asian child to learn, like there’s some osmosis. We’re starting to internalize that.

Dr. Roberts:

Yeah, that’s problematic. That’s problematic.

Gwen Samuel:

But it just gets weary. You know?

Dr. Roberts:

I have never been a fan of busing. See I called it cruel and unusual punishment because you have to wake these kids up really early in the morning, put them on buses, send them on the other side of town where they are met with vitriol and hatred, then have to go home, another long trip. They got homework. They stay up late. They got to get up early. See, it’s just a mess. But if they were given the resources, the qualified teachers, where they are, they wouldn’t need to be bused.

 

The Connecticut Parents Union is suing the State of Connecticut for barring black students from attending some of the state’s top magnet schools because of the state’s racial quotas for magnet schools. Decades after Terrence Roberts endured vitriol and violence for trying to receive a better education, it’s despicable that states are still limiting the education options of minority students simply because of the color of their skin.

 

*This interview transcript was edited slightly for length and clarity

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