A defining decision
|Judge John Parker's legal ruling 31 years ago set in motion the events that gave rise to the Capital Region.|
Indeed, this is our 30th anniversary issue, yet when looking back at how Baton Rouge has grown, evolved and sprawled into the Capital Region over the past three decades, one must actually go back 31 years, to 1981. That was the year in which a U.S. district judge by the name of John Parker issued a legal ruling that not only instituted the intended consequence of forced public school busing in East Baton Rouge Parish, but also had the unintended consequence of becoming the flashpoint for what we now call the Capital Region.
What went on to become the nation's longest-running desegregation case, at 47 years, did not begin in 1981, but rather 1956. Yet for the first 25 years little of consequence happened as the court essentially allowed the school system to embrace a “separate but equal” solution. It wasn't until after a 1975 decision to grant unitary status to Baton Rouge schools was overturned on appeal that Parker entered the case and issued the order that set us on the path to where we find ourselves today.
Parker's busing order to ensure integrated classrooms not only gave explosive rise to private schools in the parish but, more importantly, triggered the white flight to places like Prairieville, Zachary, Denham Springs, Central and Walker. Ascension and Livingston parishes don't become two of the fastest-growing parishes in the state without Parker's order. Neither does Baker almost bankrupt itself fighting to break free from the parish school system, a suit later joined by Zachary so that city could also gain its education independence. Without Parker's decision, the suburb of Central is never forced to incorporate by a state senator named Kip Holden so that it, too, could operate an independent school district. Without Parker's order, a group of frustrated parents in southeast Baton Rouge don't, in 2012, launch a crusade to create a fourth independent school district in the parish.
This is not to say that suburban migration wasn't inevitable; national trends make it clear that outward expansion and the rise of bedroom communities would be a given. Yet Parker's decision dramatically accelerated the timeline.
Parker's plan for racial harmony in the schools left the system overwhelmingly black and predominantly poor. As those with financial means departed the system, education performance declined, giving birth to charter schools, state takeovers, recovery school districts and voucher programs. What Parker almost certainly did not know at the time was that his solution to the segregation problem would eventually lead to the near death of the East Baton Rouge Parish Public School System. The ultimate irony is that Parker's plan to bring blacks and whites together has actually driven them further apart.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Though Parker's decision was the impetus, it's apparent that our racial divide has been the defining issue of the past 30 years, particularly how we've chosen to deal with it—largely by living in racial isolation. The cause is clear; equally obvious is the effect it has had on our region.
Much of black Baton Rouge lives in a highly concentrated area in north Baton Rouge. Whites largely have either left for neighboring parishes or have settled in suburban hamlets. In the Capital Region, there are few examples of anything resembling a racially mixed neighborhood.
Horrendous traffic and a fear of crime have been constant complaints by those who call Baton Rouge home. Parker's desegregation ruling, along with the racial divide, has exacerbated both issues.
As whites fled to the suburbs, the street grid that defines old Baton Rouge neighborhoods like Southdowns, the Garden District and Old Goodwood gave way to single-entrance—and often gated—subdivisions. Homeowners demanded this—and developers happily obliged—over crime fears and a desire to keep anyone not living in the neighborhood out of the neighborhood.
Yet this sprawling growth also made it difficult for government—handcuffed by a high property tax exemption, already high sales taxes and the populist legacy of local wealth flowing to the state for redistribution by the governor and state legislators—to fund the infrastructure demands associated with the expansion. Complicating matters is that our employment centers did not follow the people's march to the suburbs. We were moving further apart, but people were still working at area plants and refineries, or downtown law firms and government offices, or at LSU or Southern, or for companies and small businesses along Essen Lane, Jefferson Highway, Bluebonnet Boulevard and Perkins Road.
As local leaders in East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes struggled to keep pace with demand, they seemingly all stumbled upon the idea of using interstates 10 and 12 to act as the region's primary commuter connector.
The result: Inadequate surface streets throughout the region are consistently congested, and interstate traffic slows to a crawl during morning and evening rush hours.
—Reuben Greenberg, police chief, Charleston, S.C.
As the wealthy have moved down Highland Road to gated communities, like the Country Club of Louisiana, and as the middle class have settled in the suburbs, those left behind are the poor. East Baton Rouge has one of the nation's highest poverty rates, at 17%, but that figure jumps to 24%—or nearly one out of every four residents—inside incorporated Baton Rouge.
Hillar Moore III, the district attorney in East Baton Rouge, says an overwhelming majority of the crime in this parish either occurs in those high-poverty north Baton Rouge neighborhoods or is committed by someone from those neighborhoods. So, in an ironic twist, the abandonment of incorporated Baton Rouge by the middle class and wealthy is a factor in rising crime in the suburbs.
The more important factors, of course, are that large numbers of blacks, in part because of declining public schools, have been unable to escape the cycle of poverty—and many of those blacks who do break free have chosen to leave the area. While whites with means flee to the suburbs, blacks with means flee to other states.
A truth about crime in Baton Rouge is that it has become the No. 1 political issue in the current mayor's race because, while crime is still largely a black-on-black occurrence, there's been a rise in white victims of murder and other violent crime.
Much is written about the racial divide in Baton Rouge, but it's more accurate to write there's an economic divide in the region. It's just that many of the poor happen to be black, while the majority of the middle class and wealthy are white.
The struggle of the wants and needs of the poor against very different wants and needs of the more affluent has been an ever-present tension in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Consider who we have elected as mayor. The past 30 years have seen Pat Screen, Tom Ed McHugh, Bobby Simpson and Kip Holden. McHugh, who served three terms, and Simpson, one term, all won because white suburban voters, particularly those in Baker, Central and Zachary, outnumbered urban black voters. Holden, who failed to win election in his first two attempts, finally won only because a strong and financially powerful coalition of white business leaders adopted an “anybody but Bobby” mentality during the 2004 election.
As the national economy slumped into a recession and the local economy slowed, the Baton Rouge divide grew even more evident as suburban whites became even more anti-tax while urban blacks and those who support downtown development fought for higher taxes to pay for things such as improved bus service and downtown improvements. Stopping those things became so important it did not matter if new taxes to fight crime or infrastructure improvements had to be defeated as well.
What's interesting is that neither side is inclined to understand the plight of the other. Suburban voters don't want to hear about the importance of downtown, the need for a library or better bus service. Downtown supporters don't seem interested in the very real infrastructure issues that face fast-growing suburban cities. As the area population has approached a 50-50 black-white ratio, the ability of local government to get anything of significance accomplished has become almost nonexistent.
Also worth noting is that the taxing structure of this state almost encourages a parochial mentality. Since so much money flows from cities to the state and because of the high property tax homestead exemption, cities typically rely on sales taxes to fund major government operations. Moreover, the attitude of voters here favors sales taxes, under the theory that sales taxes are paid by everyone while property taxes unfairly put too much burden on the middle class. That's a highly debatable point, but there's no denying that is the Baton Rouge voter point of view.
Our sales tax rate, one of the highest in the nation, is at or near its maximum allowable number, meaning voters must be selective when deciding to approve a new tax. The decision comes down to approving an increase for a local need or for something that benefits another area or the entire parish. Almost without fail, voters have taken the local need option.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
The effect of Parker's 1981 ruling on Baton Rouge and the Capital Region over the past 30 years is undeniable. Yet other events have played a role as well.
For example, a canvass trip to Austin in 2003, ostensibly concocted by Simpson and his supporters to prove the divide between Baton Rouge and the Texas capital city was not that great, ultimately had the opposite effect. Three days in Austin made it clear that young educated professionals were the key to Baton Rouge's economic future and that the city needed significant transformation. The results of the trip were 1) the Baton Rouge Chamber's leadership was removed from office, replaced by Stephen Moret and a newly branded Baton Rouge Area Chamber, 2) what had been a small movement to improve downtown expanded into a mandate to make the area more attractive to young professionals, 3) a group named A6 briefly soared across the horizon as a disruptive force of the status quo and, perhaps most notably, 4) it was decided Simpson was not the mayor to advance the cause and that he needed to be removed from office, which opened the door for Holden to win election.
The post-Austin Baton Rouge movement, however, collided directly with the growing desires of suburban Baton Rouge, creating yet another round of political showdowns.
Which brings us back to where this all began—in a courtroom in downtown Baton Rouge. One can only wonder if Parker looks at the Capital Region of today and understands just how large a role he has played in what it has become.
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