I last lived fulltime in West Feliciana Parish in 1983. The parish has changed a lot in the past 30 years, and so, of course, have I. In the past few years, there has been a fair amount of political turmoil here, centered around the “police jury,” which is what the county commission is called in many Louisiana parishes.
I don’t really know what the controversies have been about, aside from a lot of people being fed up with what they consider government incompetence and mismanagement. There’s been an enormous amount of heat generated by all this, and a feeling among many that the police jury’s chronic dysfunction imperils the economic future of the parish. Some of these people got together and formed a committee to draft a “Home Rule Charter” to redesign the parish’s government. The police jury voted to put the HRC on the ballot in last November’s election, and it passed, 57 to 43 percent.
I did not and do not have an opinion on Home Rule, because I flat-out haven’t paid attention. I’ve resisted getting involved in discussions about the controversy, in part because I was busy writing a book, and in part because there’s — how to put this? — an unattractive level of passion around the issue. I’m not putting down those on either side who care enough about local government to be so passionate about Home Rule. I’m simply saying that the issue was off-putting to me, even though I know and respect people who have been intensely engaged in the struggle.
Last week, it came out that a couple of police jurors wanted to put a Home Rule repeal on the ballot for this October’s election. That caught my attention. Whether one was for or against Home Rule, the people voted on it last fall, and it passed by a healthy, if not overwhelming, majority. The parish faces so many economic challenges — a declining tax base, a school system wounded by severe budget cuts — that it seemed absurd to me that we were going to have to fight this thing out again. Time to start paying attention, I figured. Because I have been on the margins of conversations about Home Rule since I’ve been back, and because I know Facebook and things you hear at barbecues aren’t reliable guides to the issue, I started a blog in which I will report a bit on this stuff, and on which I’ve invited local people on any and all sides of the issue to write in with their stories and opinions. My two criteria are that people be civil and respectful, and that they identify themselves. Much local discussion has taken place anonymously on that Topix site, which is a cesspool of slander and gossip that does no good for anybody.
So I went earlier this week to the police jury meeting, which lasted well over three hours. There was a lot of discussion about Home Rule and its implementation, much of it having to do with redistricting and the Justice Department. I wrote about some of that earlier this week. The thing that struck me, as someone new to this issue, is how nearly all the controversy as articulated at that meeting had to do with race.
Black citizens who spoke out indicated that they oppose the Home Rule Charter because they believe it will dilute minority voting strength. A letter sent out by local black leaders prior to last fall’s vote asked parish voters to reject Home Rule because of this. Whites who spoke to defend the HRC –note well that not all whites here support Home Rule — indicated that this is not a racial issue, but a question of good and effective government.
When I posted on Facebook a link to my blog summary of the meeting, a local (white) friend responded by saying she didn’t think the controversy was about race, and why do I think it would “help” (her word) to highlight race. I said that I highlighted race because at the meeting I covered, race was at the center of the HRC controversy, and the jury split along racial lines on whether to put repeal on the ballot. Whatever else the controversy is about, fair or not, race is central to it — at least in the minds of many black citizens.
There was some controversy in the meeting about the work Cedric Floyd, a (black) demographer, has been doing for the jury on redistricting. Floyd’s job is to redistrict for Home Rule in a way that will make the Home Rule system acceptable to the US Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act. Some white jurors questioned Floyd, who came up from New Orleans for the meeting, about the meetings he’s supposed to be having with black citizens, to get their input. These jurors expressed a belief that Floyd is dragging his feet, and wanted to find out how they could get involved themselves in setting up these meetings so Floyd can hurry up and get his redistricting plan done. Floyd wouldn’t give any names, and said that some black citizens could feel intimidated about speaking their minds in public on the issue (this, by way of justifying his discretion).
I’ve been thinking about that point this week, and thinking about the objection that writing about race and local politics doesn’t “help.” I see what the reader was getting at about race being a taboo subject among both black and white, but as a relative outsider, it seems that feeling free to say what one really thinks, and confronting our differences with some degree of honesty, is a serious problem. Blacks and whites in this parish have been going to school together for almost half a century, and living in this same small place together. And yet, a polite distance seems to be the best we can do.
Maybe this is the best anybody can hope for right now, for the sake of keeping the peace. But it seems to me that we can do better than that. It’s hard for people here to see things from the other’s point of view because folks don’t talk openly among people of the other race about what they think. There’s fear on both sides of saying the wrong thing. How substantial is this fear, and how much of it is fear of something that doesn’t exist? I don’t know.
It could be that this public silence was a wise strategic choice. When desegregation came, West Feliciana did not do what other parishes did. We, by and large, did not have white flight. Whites and blacks made it work. Today, the parish has one of the best school systems in the state, even though it just had to lay off all its arts teachers and physical education teachers because it could not afford them any longer. I wonder to what extent the parish has managed to achieve all this because of an unspoken agreement between black and white not to dwell publicly on the past, or on our differences. I do know that my generation (I was born in 1967) of whites here has very little awareness of how things were back in the day. This 1964 article from Ebony magazine, detailing landmark voting rights events that happened here — including a harrowing episode of racist intimidation of black citizens — genuinely comes as a shock to a generation of (white?) people who were raised with no one talking about these events.
This is part of our history, and it bears heavily on the present — and on the future. But how determinative of the parish’s future should it be? I observe that many of those whites active in the Home Rule cause are residents who moved here from elsewhere, and who don’t have this history behind them, at least not in their families. They want good government, because they’re voters and taxpayers who have a stake in the future of this parish. If we don’t have economic development, there won’t be a future for their children here. Whether they’re right or they’re wrong about Home Rule, it seems clear to me that they’re not trying to suppress black people.
When it comes to race, I think that it’s hard for all people here — and this is true of America, by the way — to enter imaginatively into each other’s stories. I’m guilty of this too, I know, but I want to be different. To do this does not mean that you are obliged to take the other person’s point of view, but it does mean that you make a serious effort to see things through the eye of the other, and to understand why they believe the way they do. And you make a serious effort to ask yourself whether or not you might be wrong.
The thing is, like Cedric Floyd said, some black citizens may be afraid to say what they really think out loud. I know this is true for some white citizens. A white West Felicianian who reads that new blog I’ve started e-mailed me with her thoughts on the matter. I thought what she had to say was honest and a good contribution to the discussion. But I also realized, based on part of her e-mail, that she can’t put her name to this. I decided to alter one of my criteria for posting things to that blog. I will post things there without attribution, but only if I know the identity of the person who sent it, and have verified with them that the words are their own. Of course, the comments must be constructive and civil. Here is what she wrote:
I cannot thank you enough for this synopsis of the meeting and the issues involved. What I most cannot get over though, is the article in Ebony Magazine about local black citizens attempting to register to vote in St. Francisville in the early 60’s. Wow, it sounds like a movie! I am a generation once or twice removed from that reality and it truly shocks me that intimidation on such a scale was a common practice by those in power. I am so naive to think that could never have happened here, as it did elsewhere in the South in those days. It really gives a perspective to today’s race issues in this parish that I think we from a younger generation tend to forget about.
How the HRC repeal or implementation unfolds will be very interesting. Those in power now are not going down without a fight. It is my sincere wish that the past could be forgotten and we could move forward to a future where skin color does not determine your political identity and the only things that matter are your integrity and character. I understand a little more about the fear and distrust of the white community by the black community after reading things like this article. But honestly, it seems there is such a huge divide between us, and I see very little willingness for those on the black side of the community to bridge it. Many a field trip, school function and birthday party I’ve attended and been repeatedly ignored or brushed off by African-American parents, though I feel I have tried to be reach out and be friendly. Our kids play and learn together…can’t the adults at least be cordial to one another? I was shocked and hurt the first time we all took a school bus trip together. It might as well have been 1955. The parents on that bus were self-segregated and there was no effort to communicate between the races. I tried and was rebuffed each time. It clearly is an issue of trust, or lack thereof.
Personally, I want each black child in this parish to know they are worthy and capable of doing great things and luckily we have a wonderful school system to help them achieve their goals. But is that going to happen if the black community refuses to let go of the past by constantly drawing the battle lines and territories and refusing to cooperate with the “white elites” because they feel they are the enemy? This is the year 2013. Our president is African-American. I believe we can work together. I know I am ready. But the racism in the black community is holding it back. And of course, fear. It’s so deeply ingrained.
Perhaps in another generation things will have evolved. I could go on and on because I think about the race problems here often. We’re such an anomaly for Louisiana in that we have a diverse public school system that is working and thriving. What I once feared when moving here I now appreciate…I’m so pleased to have my kids go to school with other kids from different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. I truly believe they will be better people for it. I only feared it because I’d never experienced it. I don’t know what the answer is. But I think just starting to talk about it and think about it intelligently [is a good start.]
I hope she’s right. I believe she’s right. That’s why I’ve asked all people — black, white, people on all sides of this issue — to send me their thoughts and tell me their stories. I’ll post them, keeping their identities secret, but also using discretion; I will not post inflammatory material. I’m going overseas next week, but when I get back, I’m going to seek out black and white citizens to interview, asking for their stories. I want to know what they’ve seen, what they think, what they fear, what they hope for, and what they want for their children.
The past determines the future, but only insofar as it conditions our choices in the present. My hunch is that none of us in this parish, black or white, have nearly as much to fear from each other as we think we do. But we don’t know that. Yet.
Listen, if you want to post on this particular thread, don’t just throw a rhetorical bomb. Say something constructive, even if critical.