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St. George And The Dragon Of Race

Aryanna Prasad is an LSU journalism student who has taken an interest in the city of St. George movement — that is, the campaign by some residents of affluent South Baton Rouge to form a city named St. George from the unincorporated parts of East Baton Rouge Parish. It’s often understood as nothing more than a race thing, […]

Aryanna Prasad is an LSU journalism student who has taken an interest in the city of St. George movement — that is, the campaign by some residents of affluent South Baton Rouge to form a city named St. George from the unincorporated parts of East Baton Rouge Parish. It’s often understood as nothing more than a race thing, given that St. George is about 78% white, but East Baton Rouge Parish (= the city of BR and its unincorporated areas) is about 50/50 between whites and blacks. The north side of the city is poor, black, and crime-ridden, with a battered public school system. The south side is mostly white, relatively affluent, and, campaigners say, trying to beef up its public school system to stop the middle-class flight out of East Baton Rouge and into neighboring parishes for better public schools. St. George, if it comes into being, would mean a tremendous revenue loss for Baton Rouge, and would undoubtedly make a bad situation for north Baton Rouge much worse. This is why the business class in the city is strongly opposing the move.

Prasad writes that she is tired of outsiders writing about Louisiana simplistically, which is why even though she opposes the St. George campaign, she went to a public meeting there to hear arguments on the issue. From her report:

I concluded this is not about race but about money. In a city where most of the poor are black, race and class become intertwined.

No, they’re not “putting a wall around the city” as effort leader Dustin Yates clarified, and they intend to put money into the parish. But there is a barrier that this city will create. Keeping tax dollars within this district will deprive the surrounding community of necessary revenue.

St. George is a complicated situation, which is why there are mixed feelings in the Capitol. It’s easy to look at them and call them greedy white racists, but that statement is as ignorant as the accused group.

I was not feeling the heat of this informational. When I walked in, aging white people filled the pews. Religion and politics were indistinguishable: the audience applauded the pastor after a New Testament parable. Maneuvering through the sensationalism characteristic of grassroots movements, I felt satisfied I understood their message.

They presented a legitimate problem, one not unfamiliar in our American history. They wanted political representation and financial accountability from a seemingly distant government. But they needed to account for the modern definition of American government: one that, for better or worse, includes a responsibility to care for its less fortunate citizens. The town is racially divided, and this is integrated with our socioeconomics: poor neighborhoods are predominantly black, and it is these neighborhoods that St. George will not include because they want to keep their tax dollars to themselves. Are these people responsible for the welfare of the parish? Do they have the right to question how their money is spent? Moreover, do they have the right to create their own school district, which has now expanded to a new town?

These are precisely the philosophical questions at the heart of the dispute. As Prasad indicates, it’s impossible to talk about economics in Louisiana without talking about race — but that can mean that legitimate concerns about self-government and localism become very hard to discuss in good faith.

The St. George controversy raises the question: What is our community? I know from speaking anecdotally with white people who live in South Baton Rouge that many are afraid of violent crime (which is heavily a black thing there), and more to the point, afraid that they will not be able to protect their neighborhoods (and investments) from decline. As I understand it — and I could be wrong — it all ties in to the public schools because middle-class white families who can’t afford private school are moving out of the city-parish. The idea is that the EBR school system is draining so many resources and redistributing them to poor parts of town that will never be functional, and preventing the middle-class families who have their lives together and who work in productive jobs from spending as much as they could on neighborhood public schools. In fact, the St. George movement emerged out of a failed attempt to establish a breakaway school district.

BR journalist J.R. Ball, who opposes the St. George breakaway plan, says all the bluster about bigotry hides real and justified problems. From his piece:

In short, the middle class is not happy with life in America’s next great city.

They are tired of…

… a parish-wide public school system that’s wonderful at educating the academically gifted but abysmal at educating everyone else.

… having to put their children on buses to be driven across town in the early morning hours to attend magnet schools zip codes away.

… electing school board members who promise “reform” during the campaign but deliver “status quo” once in office.

… hearing school superintendents talk about bold plans that will give neighborhoods academic autonomy and yet those bold promises never get enacted.

… the classroom tension and violence that’s happening as a result of mixing students from the northern part of the parish — who have little desire to be bused across Baton Rouge — with students from the southern part of the parish, who also have no desire to commingle with their policy-forced classmates.

… being told — thanks, in part, to a former State senator by the name of Kip Holden [now the Mayor — RD] — that they can’t have an independent school district unless they first create a city and then be chastised for wanting to create a city so that they can have an independent school district.

… seeing new schools built elsewhere in the district and then be told there’s no money to build schools in a part of the district that’s actually experiencing population growth.

… having to wait on line days in advance — or participate in a lottery — to register their children for the rare pre-K programs and public schools that actually do work.

… residing in one of Louisiana’s worst school districts while neighboring school districts in Ascension, Livingston and West Feliciana parishes, as well as in the independent school districts of Zachary and Central (districts that all have students who have fled EBR schools) soar to the top of academic performance charts.

Of course, it’s easy to make this only about the state of public education in the remnants of a parish-wide school district that’s been in decline since that day 32 years ago when U.S. District Judge John Parker instituted his brand desegregation.

Yet, there’s growing middle-class frustration over a metropolitan form of government that those in unincorporated East Baton Rouge say favors those in the city of Baton Rouge. They look at their tax bills and fees, then look around at their crumbling infrastructure and wonder what exactly are they getting for the money? They see a mayor-president who, in their mind, puts a higher value on his Baton Rouge mayor’s job than on his parish president’s job. They see a Metro Council neutered by the same racial divide plaguing nearly every facet of life in this parish.

Me, I don’t know enough about the St. George situation to have an informed opinion one way or another. My instinct is to think it would be a bad deal overall, but I admit I would probably feel quite different if I thought this was the last stand I could do to save my local schools and keep families with kids from moving away. Again, though, the question of what the people of Baton Rouge, of all races, owe to each other, is a key moral aspect of this controversy.

I do appreciate Prasad actually going to a St. George event and having her perspective altered, simply because she figured there must be more to the story than she was being told. That instinct will serve her well in her career as a journalist. If the petition drive to get St. George on the ballot is successful, you will probably see national coverage of the controversy. Keep in mind that this is a situation that is about black and white, but that cannot be reduced to black and white.

UPDATE: Just put this in the comments:

I wish we could quit the familiar back and forth with positions we’ve all rehearsed here a thousand times, and talk about what it means to be part of a community. That’s not happy-clappy speak; I really do think that this St. George story, and others like it, should make us reflect on what community means today.

There’s no need to re-tell the ugly history of school segregation in East Baton Rouge Parish. I may be wrong about this — I’m trying to remember events from my childhood — but I’m fairly certain that the strict busing program a federal judge imposed on the parish school system deeply poisoned the public against the deseg plan. It was never going to be an easy sell in EBR anyway, but busing very nearly destroyed the public school system. That can’t be undone now, but it should be remembered that this didn’t start yesterday. So, the legacies of both segregation and the judicially imposed desegregation plan did a lot to unravel the fabric of community.

But it goes deeper than that. I’m thinking tonight of Robert Nisbet’s “The Quest For Community.” In that landmark book, Nisbet explores the nature of the loss of a sense of community in modern times. Nisbet says, of modern man, “What he has become isolated from is the sense of meaningful proximity to the major ends and purposes of his culture.” How did we get here? Again, it didn’t start yesterday. Nisbet discusses how modern history constitutes “a continuous movement away from the centrality of the social group, with its attributes of status and membership, to the primacy of the legally autonomous individual and impersonal relations of contract.” What he’s saying is the entire sweep of history in the last two centuries has been about the emancipation of the individual from the group. This has had some good results, and some bad results. But this is a basic description of social history, throughout the West. The political, emotional, and psychological state of most contemporary Americans is highly individualistic.

So what binds us together? If we don’t feel bound by an organic link to a wider community, we will think of society more in contractual terms. When people — or a people — are not seen to be dealing fairly with their part of the social contract, it shouldn’t surprise us that others party to that contract would wish to withdraw. Without a strongly felt sense of communal obligation, there is not much to hold a naturally fissaparous polity together — especially if people come to believe their children’s welfare is at stake.

To return to Nisbet’s language, if you were to ask people in north Baton Rouge and south Baton Rouge what are the major ends and purposes of their culture, I think you would get two very different answers. And therein lies a big part of the problem.