Because of America’s history of neighborhood and school segregation, the movement in many ways advances a new form of racial segregation that cripples public schools, especially those serving poor children of color. It also undermines municipal infrastructure and transportation systems and makes life more difficult for all residents. In south Louisiana, it even contributes to flooding.
Education has long been divided by race in the United States. Enslavers passed state laws to prevent enslaved men, women and children from learning how to read and write, recognizing that education was a form of power to be conserved. After emancipation, even as African Americans became citizens with a right to education, white elites sought to keep schools overwhelmingly segregated, leaving African Americans with badly underfunded schools.
In 1874, the newly elected majority-black Orleans Parish School Board embarked on an integration plan, much to the dismay of the city’s white supremacists, who had overthrown the state government in a violent coup only months before. Conservative newspapers in New Orleans floated several possible responses, including withdrawing white children and sending them to private schools.
In the end, conservatives settled on a strategy of violence and intimidation, attacking school board members in late 1874 and leaving one, Victor Eugène Macarty, for dead in a gutter. Though Macarty survived, the integrationist movement did not. The Daily Picayune ominously observed that high school seniors had spearheaded this orgy of violence and met “to determine what action the boys would take if the ‘mixture’ was [again] attempted.” As the wave of white supremacist violence went unprosecuted, it quickly became clear to advocates of equality that their sacrifices would be in vain.
After the formal end of Reconstruction in 1876, white communities implemented Jim Crow laws to separate students by race, ensuring unequal access to resources and education.
Enduring neighborhood and school segregation guaranteed that full citizenship and social mobility would remain white privileges. After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, racist white Americans might have acknowledged their misbehavior and resolved to embrace equality. Instead, they chose a strategy of massive resistance founded on white intransigence.
A school desegregation case involving East Baton Rouge — among the longest-running in U.S. history — was filed in 1956 after it became clear that the school board would not comply voluntarily with Brown. But even when the courts mandated specific changes from the school board in 1963, segregationists managed to delay or avoid taking meaningful steps toward integration.
When Judge John Parker ruled in 1981 that the Baton Rouge parish school board could no longer use zoning to keep schools segregated, many white residents opposed the prospect of integration; 7,000 white students moved from the public schools to private ones that year alone.
White families also moved in droves from East Baton Rouge Parish to neighboring Ascension and Livingston parishes in a pattern of “white flight,” the practice of whites leaving cities for suburbs to keep their neighborhoods segregated. Nearby parishes have more than doubled their populations since 1980 and boast some of the largest development projects in the region. According to boosters and developers, the schools were “a huge draw into the area,” which experienced dramatic growth after Parker’s 1981 order. White flight has had lasting effects on Baton Rouge. For one thing, the city has some of the worst traffic in the country for a city of its size. Rather than investing in Baton Rouge’s infrastructure and making its schools better for everyone, the state favored a pattern in which residents could leave and go somewhere else, even building new schools, sewers and roads. The result has been sprawl, clogged roads, longer commutes and disinvestment in the city.
But the strategies of turning to private schools and moving to segregated suburbs were not enough for the wealthy, white residents of East Baton Rouge. Today they have seceded and formed their own city: “St. George.” They join about 73 other communities in the country in which predominantly white parents have broken away from majority-minority districts to form their own school districts. As the brand new city’s spokesman, Lionel Rainey, explained in a 2014 interview, “We’ll go to the length of creating our own city to create our own education system — to take control back from the status quo” of the parish’s integrated classrooms.
This new strategy comes partially in response to the high price tag of the existing strategies of segregation for individual families. At just under $6,000 per year for elementary school students and roughly $10,000 for high schoolers, the cost of a private education is substantial. Even with the 100 percent tuition tax credit and tax-free savings accounts — policies aimed at supporting white residents’ tactics of segregation — many struggle to pay for private schools. Because millennials earn roughly 20 percent less than their baby boomer parents did at their age, the new generation of area segregationists had to alter their strategy if they hoped to keep their children out of integrated public schools.
The broader costs of white intransigence, however, are mounting. Decades of sprawl and now new secessionist strategies are producing a building boom in nearby parishes and the city of St. George while diverting needed tax dollars from the crumbling infrastructure in Baton Rouge. The patterns of development, fanned by white flight from the city’s public schools, mean that the region, which inches closer to the Gulf of Mexico every year, has fewer resources with which to fight coastal erosion and climate change. As a 2007 study of similar development patterns in New Orleans found, suburban construction on “former marshes sunk as much as 8 to 12 feet” while leaving the higher ground of the city’s original footprint substantially underdeveloped. In New Orleans, as in Baton Rouge, this sprawl was largely produced by white resistance to desegregation.
The web of white-related infrastructure that has emerged as a result of white flight and secession makes the low-lying area — already prone to flooding — especially vulnerable. The runoff from additional lanes of highway, expansive parking lots and new subdivisions combine to create dangerous flash flooding problems that the city experiences on a semiannual basis, where runoff floods cars and damages homes. Now, instead of working to keep the river out of its homes as it has for centuries, the city faces widespread damage and flooding from something as commonplace as a severe thunderstorm.
For 150 years, white residents of the area have chosen repeatedly to advance segregation and undermine black equality. They responded to integration efforts with violence. They chose to pay to build new private schools like Parkview Baptist, founded in 1981. They chose to build new suburbs and exburbs such as Gonzales and Prairieville to create new, white-majority school districts. In St. George, they chose secession to hoard resources and infrastructure for themselves. These choices have not only divided the communities of Baton Rouge, but have also subjected the whole region to chronic, worsening flooding.
By stubbornly denying equal access and opportunities to their African American neighbors, white residents of the region have threatened their own survival and, with it, the resources they so carefully guarded.