Monday, January 6, 2014

An Educator's Reflections on School Segregation and the Enduring Power of Race in Louisiana

Still think we live in a post-racial society? Recent events in Louisiana provide some of the most convincing evidence of the continued significance of race in our society. Defenders of Phil Robertson-star of A&E’s Duck Dynasty-claim the controversial comments made by the patriarch of the family was not about race, but about freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Robertson’s comments-which were defended explicitly by loyal viewers, and implicitly by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal-must be placed within the appropriate context. There is mounting evidence that Robertson is not the only one in Louisiana (or the country for that matter) longing for the days when the boundaries between whites and blacks were more clearly defined. The proposal by predominately white residents in South Baton Rouge to secede is not about race, so say proponents of the initiative. In Louisiana, where prison rodeos are popular public gathering places, and the school-to-prison pipeline is moving hundreds of thousands of largely young black males from the classrooms to cells more efficiently than in any other state in the union, very few things are said to be about race. In the colorblind era comments such as those uttered by Robertson are supposed to be met with collective outrage, and summarily rebuked. Not only were Robertson’s comments defended as not being racists; anyone who suggested otherwise was accused of race baiting. Under what circumstances is this even plausible? First, it is clear that there are those among us who harbor racial prejudice towards others and are not ashamed about sharing their feelings. More commonly, policies and practices rooted in racial prejudices are stripped of all overt references to race. However, the absence of overt racial language does not mean race is insignificant. A review of the official web page for the creation of the City of St. George reveals that the alleged genesis of the movement was a desire to establish a separate school system. Every parent wants the best educational opportunities for his or her child so on the surface the issue appears race-neutral. However, like many school districts throughout the nation, the East Baton Rouge School District has suffered from the retreat-if not wholesale abandonment-of public education in this country, leaving largely poor and minority children of color in under-resourced schools. The data speak for themselves. Louisiana has some of the worst schools in the nation, and schools in the City of Baton Rouge are no exception. The observed educational shortcomings did not come about by accident in Baton Rouge or in the many other under-performing schools in the US. Baton Rouge had one of the longest running court battles concerning desegregation in the nation. Many residents fought long and hard to keep blacks and whites in separate educational facilities. Educational institutions-like other core social institutions-have been used to incorporate some groups into mainstream society, and to marginalize and subjugate other groups. A majority of students in the East Baton Rouge School District, particularly in the under-resourced schools are poor and black, and their families have few alternatives. The saying, “It is not what you now, but who you know,” rings especially true in large Southern cities, like Baton Rouge. Whites with the right connections can send their children to restrictive public schools. These exclusive public schools may charge tuition and give preferential treatment to the children of very powerful parents, including elected officials. Admission into some of the most prestigious and exclusive schools after kindergarten-without knowing the right people-is a virtual impossibility. Individuals (mostly whites) not privileged enough to send their children to the most exclusive schools do have other options. These parents may send their children to one of the highly selective magnet schools, or gifted and talent programs, in the city. The gifted and talented programs may be located within the same building as an under-resourced school that is also predominately black, making this option less attractive for some white parents. Whites with relatively few powerful connections may elect to live outside of Baton Rouge where their predecessors were successful in carving out separate school districts. Incidentally, some of these surrounding areas are considered safe havens for the Ku Klux Klan to this day. Whites who cannot afford homes in areas outside of the city may opt to enroll their children in one of the many private schools in the city. However, parents with children in private schools often pay more annually in tuition for private elementary schools than parents sending a child to college for the first time. White residents of Baton Rouge who cannot afford to take advantaged of any of these options, but firmly believe they should reap the unearned benefits of whiteness described in Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, do what they have done in the past-attempt to disenfranchise voters and then use the power of the ballot and sympathetic elected officials to achieve their intended goal. The intended goal here is to create two societies-one white, one black; if the St. George, Louisiana movement is successful it will do just that. The new municipality is likely to be more than 70% white and relatively affluent; take upwards of a third of the city’s annual revenue with it; and leave segments of an already segregated and struggling city, in even worse shape. Baton Rouge has an extensive history of racial hostility and evidence of the enduring legacy of racism is all around, especially where education is concerned. Schools were segregated in the city before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision and have remained so each decade thereafter. A recent study authored by John Logan of Brown University and Brian Stults of Florida State University highlighted Baton Rouge as an example of a city with persistent racial segregation. With the St. George movement, there is a new conflict brewing pitting the North against the South. This time it is the predominately black North Baton Rouge area and the predominately white South Baton Rouge area. In a city where communities of color still bear the physical, economical, political, and psychological scars of enslavement and second-class citizenship status; it is really disingenuous to claim the recent controversies involving Robertson and the move to incorporate St. George, Louisiana are not about race. Race is as much a part of Louisiana history and culture as the state’s sports, musical, and culinary traditions. Like the nation at-large, Louisiana must take an honest account of race. The City of Baton Rouge recently remembered the life and legacy of civil rights giant, Rev. T.J. Jemison, leader of the Baton Rouge bus boycott and advisor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In this country we have a habit of honoring fallen drum majors of justice while simultaneously failing to hold accountable the individuals and institutions that made their sacrifices necessary. From Robertson to St. George, Louisiana, it is about race.

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