Just now, I posted the following update to the “Race And Torture In Chicago” post:
UPDATE: A reader comments:
The incredibly frustrating thing about this incident is how it plays into the theory of “white flight”. Any sane, reasonable white person that watches this video will want to move out of a neighborhood that has a large young, black population, and fast. I know I would. It has nothing to do with bigotry and everything to do with self-preservation and the urge to protect one’s family. You cannot fault someone for wanting to escape an area where they are likely to be tortured and left for dead because of their skin color. As incidents like this drive away white people fearing for their lives, you can bet your lunch that (mostly wealthy, white) academics and pundits will call out this “white flight” and cite it as evidence of on-going “white supremacy”.
I think this is obviously true, but not at all obvious to liberals, especially in the media, who cannot seem to understand this dynamic except in terms of racial prejudice. The city where I live is highly segregated in terms of neighborhoods. Crime is high in the black neighborhoods, but only there. There is also, obviously, a lot of poverty in those neighborhoods, and widespread, multigenerational family breakdown. How bad is the family breakdown? According to official statistics, East Baton Rouge Parish, which takes in nearly the entire city of Baton Rouge, is 54 percent black. About 70 percent of the births to unwed mothers in the city are to black mothers. Forty-six percent of unwed mothers are below the poverty level, with 32 percent at the poverty level or no more than twice the poverty level. The connection among unwed motherhood, poverty, and crime has been very well established in academic literature over the years (for example).
If you want to live in a safer neighborhood in Baton Rouge, you don’t want to live in a neighborhood that’s majority black. Almost all the violent crime in Baton Rouge is committed by young black men, against other black people. The top five most violent zip codes in the city, accounting for 40 percent of all the violent crime, are predominantly black.
Is historical racism implicated in all this? Oh, come on, do you really have to ask? Of course it is! But if you are a homeowner and a parent in Baton Rouge, whether you are black, white, Asian, or Hispanic, your first concern isn’t going to be historical analysis. It’s going to be, “Where can I live safely? Where are the safe schools for my kids?” The answer in this city is sadly clear.
It made me recall a long phone conversation I had yesterday with a journalist friend, about what our news media should be doing better regarding coverage. I told him that it’s my impression that the country is fragmenting badly, but that nobody really has a clear idea why. Everybody seems to have a piece of the picture, but naturally we all default to explanations that come out of our own biases. In the case of the news media, its liberalism often leads it to boil many problems involving race down to a simplistic black and white narrative.
As I mentioned, Greater Baton Rouge is about 54 percent black, with non-Hispanic whites making up about 38 percent of the population. The white number is down from 70 percent in 1970, owing largely to white flight to the suburbs to escape forced busing ordered by a federal judge. Recently, residents of much of the predominantly white southern part of the city led a hard-fought effort to secede, in effect, from the city and incorporate as the City of St. George. (Technically, the proposed St. George would have taken in an unincorporated area, but its effect on the city-parish’s tax base would have been like a secession.)
The reason was that they wanted to gain control of neighborhood public schools, and remove them from the predominantly black parish school system, and its overall poor performance. But the St. George campaign was fought bitterly by north Baton Rougeans, who saw it as racist, and many whites in the city’s political and business establishment, who did not want to see Louisiana’s capital city break up. If the proposed City of St. George were to become a reality, the impoverished northern half of the city would have lost tremendous funding for its schools, and the sense of community cohesion in Baton Rouge, already tenuous, and divided racially, would have been greatly diminished.
The city of Baton Rouge fought back hard. They had a lot to lose financially, with 40% of the city’s sales tax revenue flowing out from the Mall of Louisiana and Perkins Rowe. According to most estimates, funding for Baton Rouge’s already beleaguered schools would also drop.
Underlying everything, also, is the issue of race. St George is predominantly white and relatively wealthy, while the rest of Baton Rouge is poorer and has a much stronger African American presence. While it would be too simple to frame everything in racial terms, there’s no doubt it has become a particularly contentious part of the debate.
St George supporters furiously deny racial separation as a motivating factor. “Playing the race card, it’s an intellectually dishonest point of view,” Rainey says. “It’s a lazy point of view. We get it. It plays well, it’s sensational. But there’s nothing any of us can do about what happened 20 or 30 years ago. I don’t carry that burden because there’s nothing I can do about that, but what I can do is affect what’s going to happen today and what’s going to happen tomorrow. Race has unequivocally nothing to do with what we’re looking at.”
Others, though, aren’t so sure. “They’re trying to, I guess, get back to the situation before Brown v Board of Education,” Mary Olive Pierson, a lawyer representing the city of Baton Rouge, says. “And that is in effect what it would do. The area they want to incorporate is over 80% white, so maybe that’s what they want. They deny that. They say, ‘It ain’t that’. But what is it?”
“You can’t really separate class issues from that narrative,” St George resident Carrie Patterson adds. “They bristle when you talk about white flight but what it effectively is, is middle-class flight.”
St. George’s opponents played the race card often and effectively. And St. George’s proponents downplayed it, of course, less effectively. There was simply no way to excise race from the controversy. But Carrie Patterson is absolutely right: the St. George movement was a middle-class attempt at Brexit.
As I said, it failed, but it was close. Last fall, the city-parish had a mayoral election, with State Sen. Bodi White, a white male Republican who led the St. George effort, facing off against State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, a black female Democrat who opposed it. Broome won, and was sworn in this week as the mayor-president.
I don’t live in the St. George part of the parish, so I wouldn’t have had a vote even if it had come to that. But I wonder how I would have voted. I generally favor decentralization and local control, and it is hard to blame the St. George backers for wanting to regain control of their own schools, especially given how bad the overall parish school system is.
On the other hand, St. George’s exit from the city would have been a catastrophe for the large number of poor and working class black people who live in Baton Rouge, would have caused unappeasable civic resentment, and had unpredictable, and certainly deleterious, consequences for the state’s capital city, especially given that Louisiana State University and the area around it would have been outside the bounds of St. George.
There’s no point in re-arguing the failed St. George initiative here. I raise it in this context, though, to make a couple of points that we need to start talking about in this country:
- Race does not explain everything, even when race is a major factor. Because so many in the media cannot seem to understand social and political clashes involving race in any way other than through the lens of white racism, they miss other important factors. If all the poor black people in Baton Rouge were white, we probably would have seen something like the St. George initiative arise. The people of south Baton Rouge have watched the public school system deteriorate for a generation, in large part driven by busing and the federal judge’s desegregation plan. They’re frustrated, and don’t understand why they and their children should have to pay the price for the sins of their fathers and mothers in the segregation era. Plus, the white flight phenomenon is as much a class phenomenon as it is a racial one. I seem to recall that TAC‘s own Wick Allison, in a D Magazine essay a decade or so ago reflecting on Dallas County’s unhappy experience with desegregation, pointed out that white flight to the suburbs was quickly followed by the flight of the black middle class to the suburbs. Middle-class people of all races don’t want to live around poor people, with their violence, their chaotic families, and all their problems. Which brings us to
- Who are “we”? That is, what constitutes “us” and “them”? It was unthinkable a generation ago that a place like St. George would exist in anybody’s imagination. Yes, Baton Rouge had its problems, many of them having to do with race and class, but it was one city, at least in the imagination of its people. I don’t know how true that is today, but the St. George controversy suggests that it’s a much weaker concept than it ever was. In that, Baton Rouge is not alone. Questions of identity and place are being challenged now all over. The immigration issue propelling the Trump campaign has as much to do with deep anxiety over who “we” are as it does with foreigners living among us.
You may recall that one of the frequent commenters on this blog, a reader who comments as “Jesse,” and who lives in the Pacific Northwest, said that he considers that he has more in common with people in Tokyo than he does with people in Topeka. Whether he genuinely does, or whether (as I suspect) he only imagines that it’s true, is beside the point. The point is that he feels that his interests lie more with people in a foreign city than with his own countrymen. You may criticize that if you like — I don’t intend to criticize it in this place — but it’s a big deal. Many Trump voters believe that their fellow Americans in positions of power and influence in coastal centers of power have no particular loyalty to them, and do not consider the interests of non-elite Americans in their deliberations.
That’s certainly a big part of the problem facing us, but not all of it. In Baton Rouge, it is true that the city’s business and governmental elites were against St. George’s “Brexit” move, but it is also true that no small number of non-elite whites were also against it, as was the black population. As Carrie Patterson put it, St. George was an attempt by white middle class people who live in a certain part of town to gain more control over their own destiny. What I find to be most interesting about the St. George thing — and, note well, about the broad issue of place and identity — is what changed to make the people who live in the St. George area decide that they had no responsibility to the people on the north side of town.
If you ask the media, they will say, “Racism, end of story.” But that is far too easy. I want to hypothesize that one part of it — one part — is ceasing to believe that they are all part of the same story, the American story. Whether it’s been largely true or a noble lie, I think it’s fair to say that most people in this country have believed that most other people in this country want the same thing: a family, a steady job, a safe place to live, a sense of real community, and the hope that your kids will do better than you did. In north Baton Rouge, community standards are such that having an intact traditional family is no longer a norm, nor is the traditional work ethic (which includes faith in education as a way out of poverty). The neighborhoods have become more antisocial and unsafe as familial disorder has grown.
This is happening to poor white and white working class neighborhoods too, as Charles Murray and others have demonstrated — and for similar reasons. You simply cannot maintain a strong community with widespread family breakdown, no matter what your race. In the City of Baton Rouge, social disorder is heavily associated with poor black people (if you want to find larger concentrations of dysfunctional poor white people, you have to look elsewhere in the broader region). What I want to highlight is the likelihood that the same lack of social solidarity (“We’re all in this together, despite everything”) that we have seen emerge between American business, academic, media, and political elites and those below them also exists between the middle class and the lower classes — and for similar reasons.
How could we test this hypothesis? Some suggested questions for media coverage:
- What does the black middle class think about the black lower class? Does the black middle class feel that it has more in common with people of other races — whites, Asians, Latinos, et al. — who share middle class values and disciplines, than with other black Americans? Why or why not?
- If middle-class people had to choose, would they rather live around poor or working-class people of their own race or ethnicity, or around middle-class people of a different race or ethnicity? Why or why not?
- Similarly, if a middle-class person affirms “diversity” and “inclusivity” as important values, what does he mean by that? Where does he draw the line between an expression of “diversity” that should be affirmed and one that should be denied? Who should be excluded, and why?
- What is the American dream? What is the American story? Whom do you believe shares that story in 2017, and who does not — and why?
An academic friend of mine, a European immigrant, told me last week that he and his wife, who is also an immigrant, resolved to give up trying to understand how Americans think and behave regarding race. These are very intelligent people, but very little of it makes sense to them as outsiders. I want to suggest that using race and race alone as an explanatory framework for what’s happening in American life, and where our fault lines are in 2017, obscures as much as it illuminates. I’m interested to hear from you readers about the questions you think journalists and academics might ask to help us understand America as it is in 2017.
I’m also eager to hear what you think might return a sense of national solidarity. Today, Terry Teachout, on his excellent blog, cited the following quote from the late cultural historian Kenneth Clark:
“It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.”
What gives you confidence that the United States can reverse the fragmentation, and recover a since of solidarity? I ask because I honestly have no idea.