[15 July 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I’m not a racist,” says Norman Browning. “I let my actions speak for themselves.” Those actions, presented in Frontline: Separate and Unequal, have to do with his chairmanship of an effort to incorporate his East Baton Rouge Parish community into a new city called St. George. The demographics of the new city would be very different from those of Baton Rouge, a shift to a predominantly middle class, 70 percent white population, compared to current 40 percent; the separation, observes narrator Will Lyman, would leave Baton Rouge with a “big annual deficit”.
Frontline uses the movement to St. George—currently at a petition stage, with hopes of coming to a ballot vote in November or December of this year—to illustrate a broader movement in the US toward re-segregation. It’s part of an erosion of civil rights legislation, says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, initiated by the Supreme Court’s 1991 Dowell decision, which allowed schools to be released from a desegregation order if they met “certain conditions.” Since then, Orfield suggests, the “dismantling of desegregation plans across the county.” The desegregation order in Baton Rouge was lifted in 2003; the public school student population is currently just 11% white, a number likely to be further reduced if the St. George incorporation goes through.
Those who support the incorporation, including Browning, say it’s a means to create (or reestablish) community, which is threatened by forced busing (he recalls a time when he was in school and his principal could threaten to call his “daddy,” because “He knew my father.” But the lack of access to quality schools in low-wage communities brings its own problems, namely, a cycle of poverty that leaves children and their families feeling hopeless.
FedEx manager Nikki Dangerfield’s three sons take different buses to attend schools all over Baton Rouge, each one delivering to specific needs, from honors programs to small classes to arts education. As you see kids gathered at a bus stop in the misty darkness of early morning, she attests, “I think the benefit of the kids going to schools with different cultures, with children that have different economic backgrounds, they see a better life and they can say, ‘Okay, what can I do to have a better life?’ They can dream bigger.”
The example of Dangerfield’s family makes a strong case for busing: her daughter is enrolled at LSU, a chance she wouldn’t have had if she hadn’t been able to attend a school outside her neighborhood. If St. George becomes separate from Baton Rouge, most students would be unable to follow that path. During a meeting with Baton Rouge mayor Kit Holden, St. George proponents worry that they’re “supplementing these people right now.” The mayor answers, “Yes, we’re supplementing each other,” an argument that doesn’t convince his audience. “We’re not getting the return on it, complains his questioner.
The St. George incorporation is supported by Reverend C.L. Bryant, a Tea party activist who arrives in Baton Rouge to speak to a room full of white, middle class parents. He urges them to resist “people who want to divide you down racial lines, you must do what is right for your pocketbook.” Belinda Davis, an activist (and white mother) working against the incorporation petition, hopes to maintain the community of Baton Rouge. “We’re stronger as one than we are broken up into pieces,” she says. Still, the movement to split off St. George maintains that the very existence of a US black president and the black mayor of Baton Rouge as evidence that racial equality and desegregation have been achieved and no longer need legislative or other official attention.
As Orfield points out, “People who do things that have racial implications always say that race has nothing to do with it. I’m not judging what their personal motivations are, but nobody ever says, ‘I intentionally want to discriminate’ when they do something that will have the effect of deepening inequality.” It’s an argument that can only be possible for those who make it because it omits the race components. In this story, inequality is turned into a function of individual motivation and industry, not systemic unfairness or collective responsibility.
Frontline‘s reporting here—conducted over some eight months—doesn’t overtly counter this argument (though it’s not hard to find evidence that resegregation is about race as well as class). And indeed, a second segment in this hour of Frontline suggests some specific effects of inequality. Omarina’s Story follows up on a 2012 episode, concerning Omarina Cabrera, whose difficulties at middle school in the Bronx were noticed by her teachers and principal, and also addressed. Currently a student at the prestigious Brooks Prep School in Andover, 16-year-old Omarina is an example of what can go right for students in poor neighborhoods if adults commit to mentoring her.
Omarina’s story is framed by the work of researcher Robert Belfans, who makes the argument that students can be in trouble for many reasons, not because they lack ambition or intelligence. That her un-mentored twin brother’s experience is now pretty much the opposite of Omarina’s only makes the case for Belfans’ proposal more vivid. As specific as her story may be, Omarina’s hard-won success serves as a compelling counter-argument to resegregation.