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Little Rock marks a civil rights victory

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Disparity in college

Those challenges may help explain why the racial disparity in college graduation rates, while improved, remains large. In Little Rock in 1950, the percentage of nonwhite adults with four years of college was less then half the city's overall rate (3.6 versus 8.8 percent), according to census data. Last year, the percentage was more than half the citywide rate (20.4 versus 38.7 percent).

These educational improvements have narrowed but not eliminated the income gap. In 1950, the median nonwhite family earned less than half of the city's median family income (roughly $1,100 compared with $2,425). In 2006, the census found that the median household headed by an African-American male earned two-thirds of the city's overall median family income ($38,400 compared with $58,100). That's almost exactly the national median income for both groups).

A city divided by race

Little Rock remains a city divided – physically and psychologically – by Interstate 630, a freeway running through its center that was completed in 1985. Most of its white residents, who make up 53 percent of the population, live north of I-630. Most of the city's African-Americans, who make up 40 percent of the population, live south of it. That barrier demarcates neighborhoods in a way that didn't exist in 1957, when working-class members of both races lived, if not in neighboring houses, at least on neighboring streets, says Jay Barth, professor of politics at Hendrix College in nearby Conway, Ark.

Moreover, as in other cities, court decisions requiring busing to integrate schools hastened white flight to outlying suburbs and to the city's new western neighborhoods. "It's easier now, I would argue, to go through the day without seeing someone or at least interacting with someone of the opposite race," Professor Barth says.

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