Hart: Fayetteville can do more
City should improve income gap between black, white residents
FAYETTEVILLE — Fayetteville has been a progressive leader throughout the South when it comes to race relations, but the city could do more to bridge the income gap between black and white residents, according to the keynote speaker at the city’s third annual Black History Month program.
Tomeka Hart, a senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke Sunday to a filled chapel at St. James Missionary Baptist Church. She praised Fayetteville’s history of progressive politics and inclu- sion, saying the city has gone beyond simply trying to meet racial quotas.
Five days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that seg- regated public schools were unconstitutional, the Fayetteville School District voted to integrate, Hart said.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, the school board voted unanimously to immediately integrate the high
school. When the first black students arrived on campus on Sept. 10, 1954, “the only opposition was a lone white woman with a placard.”
“Inclusion is deeper than diversity, which is making sure we have this percentage and patting ourselves on the back,” Hart said. “Inclusion is listening and caring about what people have to say. That speaks volumes.”
Hart’s work for the foundation — which aims to reduce poverty, improve education and enhance health care around the world — has focused on the organization’s national policy.
She cited U.S. Census data from 2015 showing roughly 32 percent of Fayetteville’s black residents lived in poverty, which was defined as earning below $24,250 for a family of four. That’s nearly double the percent of white residents living in poverty, which hovers around 17 percent. The city’s overall poverty rate is 24 percent, according to census data.
“We need to be intentional and ask why this is happening,” Hart said. “But you’ve got to know why it’s happening before you prescribe solutions.”
Hart said solutions could include increasing cultural diversity across municipal boards and functions, as well as investing in black-owned businesses.
“We can’t make all these decisions about the school system or community with no one present from the community,” Hart said. “If you look around the room and nobody looks different from you, that should bother you.”
Mayor Lioneld Jordan said the city is dedicated to improving equality.
“Where there is no equality, division or inclusion, no one has any rights,” he said. “That’s why [inclusion] is the most important thing we can do for this city.”
Rizelle Aaron, president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, said Fayetteville should be the state’s leading example for inclusion.
“We need to begin looking inside, beyond the outside,” Aaron said. “I want to encourage not just black men or white men, but everyone to look beyond the color and tone of someone’s skin.”
Monique Jones moved to Northwest Arkansas from Dallas. She said Fayetteville’s welcoming atmosphere made her “fall in love” with the city.
“It didn’t take long,” she said. “Everyone was friendly, from residents to the mayor to the police chief. We love being here.”
Whatever challenges lay ahead for Fayetteville, D’Andre Jones is confident the city will persevere. “In Fayetteville we’re building bridges, not walls,” said D’Andre Jones, who serves on the city’s Civil Rights Commission. “Things may get shaky, but we shall — we will — overcome.”
“I want to encourage not just black men or white men, but everyone to look beyond the color and tone of someone’s skin.” —Rizelle Aaron, president of state NAACP chapter
Rizelle Aaron, of Little Rock and president of the Arkansas NAACP, speaks Sunday at St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Fayetteville. The program was called “The Power of Black Inclusion, Lift Every Voice.”
Aaron speaks at St. James Missionary Baptist Church.