Shortly before he was executed, St. George, the adopted namesake of a controversial effort to incorporate a large swath of East Baton Rouge Parish, gave his life’s fortune to the poor. While the campaign’s organizers are still holding out hope for a last-second Hail Mary pass, their patron saint is likely disinclined to provide them with any type of divine intervention.
On Monday, the Mall of Louisiana and two of Baton Rouge’s biggest hospitals asked to be annexed into the City of Baton Rouge, a proposal that will certainly be embraced and quickly adopted by the Metro Council and Mayor-President Kip Holden. St. George organizers had counted on the projected tax revenues from these three major economic engines to subsidize and underwrite the creation of their new city government. Perhaps more importantly, the annexation of these three properties changes the description of the petition they’ve been circulating. They need 18,000 signatories to force a ballot initiative, and although they claim to be “four to six weeks away” from reaching that threshold, they also have publicly acknowledged, via Facebook, that the proposed annexations would legally invalidate their petition.
For what it’s worth, I seriously doubt that organizers are actually “four to six weeks away” from reaching their target. I think they hit their ceiling months ago, which is explains why, after initially disclosing their numbers, they now repeatedly have refused to release any information, other than to suggest that they’re “on pace.” To be sure, their inability to sustain momentum may be belied by the media’s reporting of the number of people who attend their campaign meetings. It’s understandable that any journalist who has ever covered a City Hall beat in Louisiana would find it noteworthy any time they’re assigned to cover a public meeting attended by more than the same few dozen regulars.
But context here is probably important: 200 people at a St. George campaign rally is a little more than 1% of the total number of people they need to sign their petition, and it’s less than a fraction of a percent of the total population of the proposed city. The campaign has smartly and deliberately appeared to be bigger and more popular than it actually is. There is now an echo effect. They may have accelerated quickly, but their attempt to get the 18,000 signatures they need has been stuck in idle for months now. Let’s assume that they do attract the requisite number of signatures: It still means, nonetheless, that after a months-long, high-profile campaign- a campaign that has regularly received statewide and national media attention, 75% of registered voters who live within the boundaries of the proposed community are either indifferent or opposed to the effort- a statistic that is roughly borne out by polling.
From the very beginning, the campaign to incorporate what would have become the fifth largest city in Louisiana sparked accusations of classicism and racism, and although its organizers and supporters argued that they were merely motivated by an earnest desire to improve the educational opportunities available to their children, it has been almost impossible to ignore the optics, the facts, and the history.
Like many American cities, Baton Rouge subsidized and incentivized the development of white flight suburbia for more than a generation. Make no mistake: This was a zero sum game. The tax dollars that could have been spent on repairing and improving the city’s existing infrastructure within its traditional boundaries went, instead, to propping up the development of the suburbs. For a long time, it seemed like a fair deal: While Downtown and historic inner city neighborhoods were neglected, no one could deny the allure of the brand-new shopping malls and hotels, the gated neighborhoods and up-scale apartment complexes that freshly dotted the edges of the Interstate. When a national outdoor sports retailer announced their intention to build an enormous complex in nearby Gonzalez, lawmakers gave them a special tax break that was expressly designed to benefit blighted and underserved inner-city neighborhoods. And when that plan was challenged, the case made it all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which gave its blessing to this type of insidious corporate welfare under the pretense of “economic development.”
Perhaps it is unfair to characterize the people who support the incorporation of St. George as secessionists, with the heavy racial and historical baggage that term carries, but it’s still instructive to understand the campaign through the lens of race and privilege. Fair or not to the individuals behind the campaign, the term “secessionist” seems applicable, despite the fact that the proposed City of St. George is entirely in an unincorporated area. Because of the unique way in which Baton Rouge is organized, it is, at once, a city and a parish; its chief executive is simultaneously the Mayor of the City of Baton Rouge and the President of East Baton Rouge Parish. Resources are pooled together; services are shared.
There is a tendency, particularly among those who live in these suburban communities, to believe that the only reason their neighborhoods are nicer and richer than inner-city neighborhoods is because of the free market. That’s absurdly simplistic. It discounts the ways in which court-ordered school desegregation was used by an entire generation of middle-class whites as a justification for abandoning neighborhood schools and the neighborhoods those schools had always served. It doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the only people who could drive on the enormously expensive highway system we just built were those who had the means to buy a car and who could afford a tank of gasoline every week. And it refuses to recognize that suburban sprawl wasn’t developed by enterprising, daring pioneers; it was built by a government controlled by wealthy white men.
This is an uncomfortable truth, particularly for those who look at blighted, predominately minority inner-city neighborhoods and believe that the failures of those neighborhoods are attributable to some sort of existential cultural failure or an over-reliance on social welfare. During the 2012 election, President Obama’s “You didn’t built that” quip was taken, out of context, as evidence of his dismissal of American entrepreneurship and ingenuity. In reality, though, it’s a profoundly simple fact; it should be self-evident. We celebrate celebrity; our politics are virtual; our friends are more numerous and less meaningful. Yet somehow, we are more connected and less in touch than ever before.
And this, I believe, is the takeaway from the attempted breakaway: The folks behind this campaign aren’t good citizens; they never fully understood their own privilege; they never considered that, ultimately, what they were asking was for their neighbors to put the City of Baton Rouge on the brink of bankruptcy and financial collapse in order to allow them to create a new majority white school district. It was outrageous. It was myopic.
The campaign relied heavily on disseminating stories about fights, drug use, and the confiscation of guns at public schools as a way of arguing that the system itself was institutionally flawed and beyond repair. I’ve followed these folks on social media for months. They have no interest in actually solving the problems. That’s not why they call attention to stories that are common in almost every urban public school district in America. No, this is about scaring people; specifically, it’s about scaring white people.
But St. George committee chairmen Hoffpauir and Norman Browning said the legislation doesn’t go far enough. Hoffpauir said there’s nothing in it that would convince him to take his children out of private schools and enroll them in the East Baton Rouge system.
Mr. Hoffpauir, a name he shared with one of Louisiana Family Forum’s highest paid employees, just needs the State of Louisiana legislature to agree on an incentive package that would entice him to force his children to change schools. Just an idea: If people like Mr. Hoffpauir want to contribute to education policy, Bobby Jindal and John White desperately need someone to sort out their voucher program. With all due respect to him, though, he’s probably not the right guy for the public school job.
The St. George effort may have failed, but, unlike George’s estate, the campaign’s largesse likely won’t be given to the poor. More than likely, it will continue to do what it’s done from the start: Provide a bundle for a well-connected group of Republican political consultants who disclose nothing, ever, to anyone. That’s how American democracy is supposed to work, right?