Defenders of Phil Robertson – star of A&E’s Duck Dynasty a show about a family in Louisiana – claim the controversial comments made by the patriarch of the family were not about race, but about freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Speaking to GQ Magazine about African Americans in the south in the 50s Robertson said,
“They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ — not a word! Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
Robertson’s comments – which were defended explicitly by loyal viewers, and implicitly by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal - are consistent with the revisionist history touted by conservatives that minimizes the exacting toll racism has had on the lives of blacks in this country. While they minimize the impact of racism, they frequently maintain that very few things are about race. Not only were Phil Robertson’s comments defended by conservative talking heads as not being about race but anyone who suggested otherwise was accused of race baiting.
To the revisionist, not much is about race. Take the case of the group of predominately white Louisiana residents in the South Baton Rouge community known as St. George who recently submitted a proposal to secede the city by annexing their community and creating a new city. This proposal is not about race, say the proponents of the secession movement. But, in Louisiana, where prison rodeos are popular public gathering places, and the school-to-prison pipeline moves thousands of largely young black males from the classrooms to prison cells more efficiently than any other state in the union, very few things are said to be about race.
First, it is clear that there are those among us who harbor racial prejudice towards others and are not ashamed about sharing those feelings. But 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 annexation 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 other under-performing schools in the United States. 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 others.
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 white) 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 talented programs. But some of the gifted and talented programs are located within the same building as an under-resourced school that is also predominately black, making this option less attractive to some white parents.
To avoid sending their children to school with blacks, some whites lacking the right connections have elected to live outside of Baton Rouge in the surrounding areas 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.
But in Louisiana, white parents who can’t afford homes in the surrounding areas, or aren’t able to get their children into an exclusive public or private school but firmly believe they should reap the unearned benefits of whiteness described in Peggy McIntosh’s book, 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 – segregation.
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 that pitts 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 disingenuous to claim the recent controversies involving Robertson of Duck Dynasty 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.
This article was written by a teacher in Louisiana who wants to remain anonymous. It was originally posted at:
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