Little Rock’s Social Question: Reading Arendt on School Desegregation and Social Climbing

POLITICAL THEORY 41.4 (2013): 533-561

Abstract: This essay interprets Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “social question” through a reading of her controversial essay “Reflections on Little Rock.” The author argues that Arendt’s social question refers to social climbing and not simply poverty, as she initially suggests. The social-climbing framework illuminates “Little Rock” in two ways. First, it explains why Arendt opposed mandatory school desegregation, which she saw as black social climbing, that is, African American citizens and the NAACP using the US courts and federal government to raise the status of African Americans to the level of whites. Second, and more significant, it provides a framework for criticizing “Little Rock” with Arendt’s own standards and criteria in mind. Reminded by Arendt of the suspect politics of social climbing, the author argues that we can see something she did not: segregation was not “natural” association but an institution established after the Civil War to protect white social climbing and social advancement.