We’re not in the 60s anymore
Living in a divided city in the 21st century
By Kendra R. ChamberlainPosted Feb 2, 2011
February is Black History Month, when we honor the civil rights leaders of the past and celebrate the legacy of a people who, once enslaved and oppressed, have become a critical and permanent contributor to our culture. It’s impossible to tell the story of America without including both their suffering and triumph. The integration of African Americans into our society stands as one of the most important and enduring victories of our country.
Great. Let’s celebrate by hanging out in North Baton Rouge.
The Capital is today still considered a radically segregated city – over half a century after the Civil Rights Movement.
In 2010, a book entitled “Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About The Real America” had an entire chapter on Baton Rouge’s two cities: white and black.
The following excerpt is attributed to John R. Smith, director of affairs at Hollywood Casino.
“We’re not in the ‘60s, whereby I may stand on my side of the street and you stay on your side and we throw rocks at each other...But I still stay on my side of the street and you still stay on your side of the street. We just don’t throw rocks at each other.”
It doesn’t look good that EBR Parish has the largest income disparity in Southern Louisiana. The median household income for whites in EBR, as of 2010, was $81K; for blacks, $33K. Let’s put that in no uncertain terms: two average black families make less annually than one average white family.
It doesn’t look good that Louisiana’s first suit filed against segregationist policies, which occurred here in Baton Rouge in 1956, and was one of the earliest suits of its kind in the country, took 47 years to resolve. Regardless of one’s opinion about the efficacy of desegregation, or bussing, or racial quotas – it doesn’t look good because the rest of the country, for the most part, resolved the issue in the 1970s, even if superficially. We didn’t even get to ‘superficially.’
“Political figures have for decades resisted integration at every opportunity,” Dr. Albert Samuels, a professor at Southern University, said in an interview last week.
The last fifty years has seen, in areas all across the country, the public school systems wobble and sputter. Most urban cities in America can be characterized by ‘white flight’ from the public school system.
Baton Rouge is no exception. During the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, the strong tradition of parochial schools in the area offered “options” for white residents to avoid integration. Many who did not opt for private education chose instead to leave the parish.
“In the decades leading up to..., the parish’s white student population steadily declined...” a report released by the Cowen Institute at Tulane University said. “Many white families moved outside of the parish or transferred their students to private schools...”
In the years immediately following the bussing mandate of 1981 here in Louisiana (a decade behind other state bussing mandates, another unattractive fact), Livingston and Ascension parishes grew dramatically. Baker, Zachary, and Central have all pulled out of the EBR school system.
“The public school system has become synonymous with ‘black school system,’” Samuels said. “It’s gotten to the point where there’s nothing left to integrate.”
The problem with having a black public school system and a white private school system is that when white students leave the system, support and interest for the system also leave. White flight, Samuels pointed out, involves more than just a loss of white students. It often includes a loss of teachers, principles, administrations, and all the experience they accrue.
As Clayton Wilcox, the infamous superintendent of EBR Parish schools, said in 2001: “...[Davis v. EBR Parish School Board] was filed on behalf of black children because they didn’t have the resources to get the right education...I think if you asked them, they did not file for the right to sit next to white children.” Nowadays, black children in Baton Rouge aren’t getting either.
Segregation doesn’t stop with the school system. It extends from the north to south, low to high. Economic development in North Baton Rouge is practically non-existent today. A tour around north Baton Rouge will quickly tell you that there aren’t too many ribbons being cut in the area.
“Businesses have left as the neighborhood has become more black,” Samuels said. A new housing development has taken years to fill, the area is filled with payday loans, and ExxonMobile looms on the horizon. You can almost see the economic redlines. And Scenic Highway? Urban blight.
“Can we get something besides Burger King, or Sonic?” Samuels said. “It’s hard to justify...to convince me that the perception that it’s a black area didn’t have something to do with that.”
“Why is that?” Samuels said. “People don’t like to think about it that way. But we’re a pretty segregated city.”
Of course, Baton Rouge doesn’t have to look so bad. A little community effort, from both the white and the black cities, would go a long way. We can start by crossing the street more often.