Reflections on Arendt’s Reflections

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that the “separate but equal” segregation of schools in America was unconstitutional in the case Brown v. Board of Education. The determination that separate was not actually equal overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that had legalized segregation in social and public places and had argued that the Constitution of the United States had no place to “endorse social, as distinguished from political, equality” (“History – Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment”). As a result of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, public schools across the American South began to integrate. In September 1957, nine African American students integrated into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas (fig.1). These students, dubbed the Little Rock Nine, went down in history as heroes of the Civil Rights movement.


Not everyone supported the court ordered integration of public schools that prompted their action. Hannah Arendt, a German-born American political theorist, wrote in her article Reflections on Little Rock that it was not acceptable for students to be forced to solve a situation that adults had been trying to deal with for decades. In Arendt’s philosophy, she separates society into three separate spheres: private, social, and political. In her private sphere, people have the right of exclusion, the social sphere includes the right to discriminate, and the political sphere is the realm of equality. She argues that public schools are in the social sphere where people should be able to use their freedom of association to discriminate with whom they spend their time. While she is not in favor of legal segregation, she does not feel that it is constitutional for the political realm of equality to infringe on individuals’ rights of discrimination and exclusiveness. Specifically, she rejects the notion that the government should force integration of public schools. Because Arendt’s philosophy of three discrete spheres of social interaction is flawed, her argument that the U.S. government should not force integration of public schools is not valid.

Hannah Arendt’s argument regarding the forced integration of Little Rock is multifaceted. First, she writes that America’s attitude toward its African American people is “rooted in American tradition and nothing else” (46). She then goes on to argue that as black and white people become more equal under the law, the more the differences between the two races will be resented. “[Therefore],” she states, “[it is] quite possible that the achievement of social, economic, and education equality for the Negro may sharpen the color problem in this country instead of assuaging it” (48). In her opinion, the situation in the American South deteriorated after enforced desegregation in public schools. More unsettling to Arendt, however, is that the integration of public schools “[burdened] children, black or white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve” (Arendt 50). She argues that forced integration is no more right or just than forced segregation.

The most important part of her argument is the idea of the three separate spheres of society. She separates human interaction into three categories: the private, social, and political spheres. In the private sphere, people have the right of exclusiveness. They are able to choose whom to invite into their home and with whom to spend intimate time based on personal preference and liking. The social sphere includes public settings and social interactions and is characterized by the right to discriminate, a function of the freedom of association. The political sphere, however, is the realm of equality, justice, and equal treatment under the law (Arendt 51-52). In Reflections on Little Rock, Arendt argues that public schools fall into the social sphere. She writes, “[Each] time we leave [our private homes] and cross over [into] the public world, we enter first, not the political realm of equality, but the social sphere” (51). Thus, Arendt argues people should have the freedom to discriminate with whom they attend school, and parents should be able to choose with whom they send their children to school.

Throughout Reflections on Little Rock, Arendt’s argument regarding the private sphere is driven by her experience as a Jew in Germany during the Nazi regime. She grew up in a time where neither students nor teachers at school could be completely trusted. Her parents had instructed her to leave school if a teacher displayed or tolerated anti-Semitism (Hinze 29). This fear and uncertainty as a child influenced her philosophy about private and social spheres; her descriptions of the household were that of a zone of privileged exclusivity and protection from the social sphere (Hinze 29). Her preconceptions of the private sphere that stemmed from her own experiences of oppression influenced her opinions about the occurrences at Little Rock. Because of this, she did not take into account the unique situation of integration in the American South and the individual desires of the African American students and families to access a quality education by attending the all white Central High School.

Regarding the social sphere of discrimination, Arendt does recognize that the personal freedom to associate and therefore discriminate has limits. Arendtian expert and author, Kathryn T. Gines, writes in her book Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question, that “Arendt is clear that discrimination is a social right, but she does not go so far to claim that it is also a legal or political right” (45). This aspect is important to Arendt’s arguments regarding racial equality in the United States. She believed that there should not be laws against interracial marriage but did not agree with laws forcing integration. Therefore, she believed that “[t]he right to privacy should not be violated by social customs or legislation” (Gines 44). However, it is not possible to keep discrimination solely in the social sphere.

Arendt also argued that the social sphere should not be subjected to mandated inclusion enforced by the political sphere. Author Christine Hinze explains: “Arendt feared that by pursuing social inclusion, in a realm of ‘discrimination’ where ‘self-interest in public’ and free association hold sway, school integrationists misguidedly prioritized ‘social advancement’ over battles to legally protect the intimate realm of family, and to attain full, equal participation in the political realm” (30). However, social advancement and political participation are intrinsically linked. A key aspect of this link in a democracy is the education of citizens. One cannot participate in the political realm if he or she is oppressed socially or denied a quality education.

Contrary to Arendt’s argument, there is no clear dividing line between the social sphere and the public political sphere. Personal discriminations and biases inevitably carry over into the political sphere and can lead to intolerance and injustice on a large scale when codified into law. While the right to associate and discriminate is a natural right of American citizens in the social and private spheres, schools do not fit just into these spheres. Public schools are arguably publicly owned services provided for all citizens and therefore partly in the political sphere; Arendt describes this type of service as “[…] not strictly in the political realm, [but] clearly in the public domain where all men are equal” (52). The government creates American public schools to educate all children in the United States, so they fall into the Arendtian political sphere of equality and are not subject to discrimination or exclusiveness. It is not acceptable for a governing body to legislate inequality because “[the] government belongs to all of us. Because it does, it must treat us all equally” (Pilon). It is immoral for the governing body of a pluralistic society to favor one group over the other, and all American students should be guaranteed equal primary and secondary education opportunities.

In her book Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education, Danielle Allen – American classicist, political scientist, and MacArthur Fellowship recipient – rebukes Arendt’s argument regarding Little Rock by reflecting on her own philosophy and those of others, including novelist and literary critic Ralph Ellison. Allen explores the role of individuals in a democratic society, the specific action on the students at Little Rock, and the sacrifices necessary for the common good to be possible. While Arendt’s Reflections on Little Rock was a useful insight into integration in the South in the late 1950s, her unfamiliarity with the American experience and insistence on the separation of the political and social spheres rendered it an inaccurate picture of the situation in Little Rock.

Arendt, having not grown up in the United States, arguably did not fully understand the history or specific situation of the African American students who chose to integrate into Central High School. She wrote, “To force parents to send their children to an integrated school against their will means to deprive them of [the private right to free association]” (Arendt 55). What Arendt must not have realized was that the Little Rock Nine, and many other students, voluntarily applied to attend the newly integrated high school (Allen 31). There was much resistance to the integration of Central High, including by the state governor and most white students and community members. For the first day of school, the Little Rock Nine were instructed to arrive at school not accompanied by their parents. At first, a student’s father did not want his daughter, Gloria, to enter the school only to be faced with mobs and threatening white students. His resentment stemmed from the fact that the “sacrifices demanded of him and his daughter [originated] from the demands of legal authority” (Allen 34) as opposed to the social motivations that Arendt presumed. Arendt also criticized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for inaction but did not realize that they were working behind the scenes to secure safe passage for the students in and out of the high school and many other logistical aspects of the integration effort (Allen 35). A full picture of the situation was not visible from the outside, and Arendt was not able to address the inner motivations and actions of the students, parents, and organizations involved.

In Chapter 3 of Talking to Strangers, Allen describes Arendt’s ideas of how the U.S. democracy could succeed after 1957 and the integration of Central High School. Arendt felt that in order to regain enough stability and trust to preserve said democracy, U.S. citizens would need to surrender all concern with social issues (Allen 26). This is an example of Arendt not understanding the fact that her three spheres of society are not wholly separate. Encouraging citizens to remain apathetic towards social issues in an attempt to save the social sphere would, however, destroy the political sphere. In large part, the political sphere, through the laws and funding decisions based on politics, creates the framework for the social sphere and influences the private sphere. Simply put, politics regulate these social issues Arendt argues one must disregard.

As Allen reports in her book Talking to Strangers, Ralph Ellison publicly addressed Arendt’s Reflections on Little Rock and her ideas on democratic citizenship. His major arguments were the concepts of social ritual and sacrifice necessary in society in order for democracy to be functional. Rituals lead to the creation and justification of social arrangements and are the foundation of political structures – another example of the political and social spheres overlapping. These rituals that Ellison argues are part of the basis of political interaction “inevitably involve children in politics, however much one might wish the case otherwise” (Allen 28). Arendt’s hopes that the children of Little Rock would not have to bear the burden of racism and integration were unrealistic and impossible.

Personal sacrifice is necessary in order for a democracy to function and is the most relevant private ritual to the political sphere. Allen writes, “No democratic citizen, adult or child, escapes the necessity of losing out on some point in the public decision” (28). There is no situation in which everyone can receive everything for which they ask. Citizens give up some individual rights in return for laws that benefit the public good. It is simply not possible for “[no one to] suffer the imposition of laws to which she has not consented” (Allen 28). Even when the common good for the majority of citizens is reached, these benefits must always be at the expense of some. This sacrifice enables the stability of the political sphere and collective democracy.

Unfortunately, it is often the same minority group that is forced to sacrifice individual freedoms for the good of the whole. The negative effects of political action are not distributed equally, and in the case American history, the African American population has been repeatedly forced to sacrifice their rights for the supposed common good of the nation. While Arendt may argue that the inevitable sacrifices necessary to reach the common good are contained strictly in the political sphere, Allen realizes that “[the] initiation of citizens into public life entails pains and disappointments that, though generated in the public sphere, are experienced in the social and personal realms” (29). Because of this aspect of politics, the social and political spheres are inextricably interconnected.

The everyday heroism and sacrifice of African Americans in the United States during times of segregation, the process of integration, and still today is often not recognized. Ellison feels that the sacrifices they endured are extreme and go far beyond a legitimate sacrifice that anyone should have to make in order for the common good to prosper. These sacrifices did, however, “[reveal] a truth that applies to all democratic citizens: the political world cannot be entirely separated from the social world, and learning how to negotiate the losses one experiences at the hands of the public is fundamental to becoming a political actor […]” (Allen 30). While the actions of the Little Rock Nine in the integration of Central High School were painful personal sacrifices, they helped propel the Civil Rights movement forward and contributed to obtaining a true common good for all.

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Figure 2: Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Other America. 1967. Stanford, CA. Chimesfreedom. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

Another reason that Arendt opposed the forced integration of public schools was her feeling that people’s opinions towards certain groups will not change with legislation. Rather, “[…] desegregation can do no more than abolish the laws enforcing discrimination; it cannot abolish discrimination and force equality upon society” (Arendt 50). Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights activist and movement leader, refutes Arendt’s notion that legislation cannot solve the problem of hateful discrimination in his speech “The Other America” (fig. 2). He said, “[…] Although […] morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated […] the law cannot change the heart, [but] it can restrain the heartless. [It] can and does change the habits of men. And when you change the habits of men, pretty soon the attitudes will be changed; pretty soon the hearts will be changed” (King). Through this process, the hateful racism and discrimination that plagued the American south during the Civil Rights movement has drastically abated. If integration of schools and other public places had not been mandated, the racial equality advancements of the last half a century would not have occurred.

Another important aspect of Ellison’s democratic society that Arendt does not address when critiquing Little Rock is the idea that “[some] citizens are the bedrock of other citizens’ lives” (Allen 45). All citizens of a democratic society – or any society for that matter – are inextricably linked and dependent on one another. Dr. King said in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” that “[the whites’] freedom is inextricably bound to [the blacks’] freedom” (King). There are unspoken and often unrealized relationships between each individual in a society. The American ethic is strengthened by bringing people from different backgrounds together; the United States is the mother of all melting pots and would not be the world leader it is today without all of the contributions of different cultures since its inception.

While Hannah Arendt contributes her voice to the Civil Rights movement through her piece Reflections on Little Rock, she does not consider the personal stories of the students, parents, and organizations involved in the integration of public schools in the south, specifically at Little Rock Central High School. Although she argues that discrimination and exclusiveness should remain in the private and social spheres, she fails to recognize that the three spheres overlap. Personal and social discrimination and intolerance lead to injustice and inequality in the political sphere. Therefore, her notion that forced integration of public schools was wrong because it infringed on people’s right to freedom of association in the social sphere is misguided. The courageous acts of the students and families in the Little Rock Nine shaped race and education in America and propelled the Civil Rights movement toward equality for all citizens (fig. 3). In so doing, they provide an excellent example of how the private, social, and political lives of all Americans are interconnected. Arendt’s notion that her three spheres of human interaction are separate may be a convenient fiction for philosophical argument but is not based in reality.

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Figure 3: Elizabeth Eckford. 1957. Little Rock Central High School. Flickr. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.




Allen, Danielle S., Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 17 November 2015.

Arendt, Hannah. “Reflections on Little Rock.” Dissent (1959): 45-56. Print.

Gines, Kathryn T. Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014. Print.

Hinze, Christine Firer. “Reconsidering Little Rock: Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King Jr., and Catholic Social Thought on Children and Families in the Struggle for Justice.” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics (n.d.): 29-50. Loyola University Chicago. Loyola University, 2009. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

“History – Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment.” United States Courts. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2015.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Lincoln Memorial. Washington, D.C. 28 August 1963. Address.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “The Other America.” Stanford University. Stanford, CA. 14 April 1967. Address.

Pilon, Roger. “Crucial Line Between Public, Private Discrimination Missing from Law.” Cato Institute. Ann Arbor News, 30 May 2003. Web. 30 November 2015.