"Us Southerners are not understood above the Mason-Dixon line."
This statement received a drawled "Ay-men" from the crowd. Though I didn't agree with conservative Baptist preacher C.L. Bryant's entire sermon, I agreed with that much. It is, after all, what prompted me to write this post.
Though my parents are from Rochester, New York, I have lived in Louisiana my entire life. To say my relatives do not understand Louisiana is an understatement--they still can't pronounce my hometown of Opelousas.
A grassroots movement in Baton Rouge is advocating for a new municipality named St. George, which would retain tax dollars to build a new district and fund a new town government. The issue is that most residents of St. George are white and affluent, and the areas they wish to exclude are poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.
I knew about St. George, but reading about it in Salon made me feel ashamed. Louisiana has a history of unflattering media representation, mostly from outsiders who know little of our complex cultural dynamics.
It made national (and international) headlines, but this was not news to me. I grew up in a conservative town, and the sentiment to "hold onto tax dollars to keep them out of the hands of the lazy poor" was the dogma of my childhood. Baton Rouge is famous for such financial disparity between races.
After studying Louisiana poverty in university, I hold a different view, and I was ready to slay St. George before it could materialize. Admittedly, I did not know its context, but I saw this same dilemma play out across the state.
When I saw there was an informational at a local Baptist church, I became curious about this proposed city and its advocates. What was this about (in their minds, anyway)? I took a thirty-minute drive to Woodlawn Baptist Church to find out.
When I heard their defense, my impression of the movement changed. They feel neglected. They want accountability for the tax dollars spent in the city. They feel underrepresented in local politics. And, as they reinforced repeatedly, this was "for the kids." They shared the frustration of taxation without representation, as our Founding Fathers did.
Framed in this context, they seem to have the qualities typical of any revolution: ordinary citizens mobilizing to govern themselves. But there's a major difference between the drafters of the St. George petition and those of our Constitution.
Saying that they want to keep their tax dollars is one thing, but telling these people they will be "the richest city in the state and even the country" and to "do what's right for [their] pocketbook" is problematic. They want to hold onto their tax dollars, but at the expense of whom? The movement stresses community, but St. George would create a clear rift in ours.
Racial issues plague Louisiana politics, and they separate Baton Rouge. By holding onto their tax dollars, they decrease the amount of money spent in Baton Rouge.
A Baton Rouge Area Commission report found that St. George would take $85 million, or 30 percent, from the East Baton Rouge Parish General Fund. East Baton Rouge Parish has the highest-and lowest-rankings in Louisiana in the 2009 Human Development Index. South and West Baton Rouge, where St. George would be located, has the highest median earnings and is 70 percent white. The North part of the parish ranks last for income at $16, 398 and is 88 percent African American. Around LSU, African Americans hold most service sector jobs. This university area is dotted with impoverished black neighborhoods susceptible to crime. Perhaps from lack of knowledge or transportation issues, many of the people who will be adversely affected by this decision were not represented at this meeting.
The St. George advocates seemed aware of this, as Bryant is African American and a former representative of Garland's NAACP. Heralded by Glenn Beck and other conservatives, he made a documentary about the problems within African American culture. He can criticize black culture, and he can dispel claims that St. George is racist. There were a handful of black people at the St. George meeting.
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?
This meeting gave me more questions than answers. I understand both sides, and though I still don't think St. George is the answer to these issues, I have yet to propose an agreeable alternative. I know that autonomy creates as much tumult as changing the current system, and if it does happen, St. George will eventually face the challenges of any other town. Arguably, it may be easier to agree when the constituents are cut from the same cloth socioeconomically.
"We all have the same food, same God, same activities..." the preacher continued. Though diverse, we identify as Louisianans and Baton Rouge citizens. Whatever happens with St. George, Louisianans must remember our shared identity and do what is in the best of our community, whatever that may be.
St. George needs to lower its sword, as do all of us Louisianans. If we're going to address our government's financial accountability, we need to address our state's crippling poverty -- and how it disproportionally affects African Americans. Despite their inaccuracy, national media saw something many Louisianans cannot see. It's time Louisianans channeled the courage of the municipality's namesake and conquered our dragons.