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Chris Tyson: The Challenges of Building An Equitable Baton Rouge

In the wake of the killing of Alton Sterling and officers Gerald, Garafalo and Jackson, I encountered some who lamented, “This is not who we are.”  My response was simply, “This is exactly who we are.” 

As prepared for delivery.

Thank you Frankie for that wonderful introduction.  Its indeed a pleasure to be with you this afternoon.  Thank you, Darrell, for the invitation to address this esteemed and distinguished gathering. 

Darrell asked me to speak to the current racial challenges we face in this community.  In a time where our President compliments Nazi’s as “very nice people” yet curses black people silently protesting injustice, it is daunting to consider where to begin a talk on race. For many of us we are in the midst of very dark and troubling times.    

As a local government law scholar, my writing and teaching focuses on the law and policy related to urban and metropolitan affairs.  I view urban and metropolitan development as fundamentally about social justice – the development and maintenance of social, political and economic realities that provide everyone meaningful opportunities to pursue their vision of the good life. 

Introduction

My title, “The Challenges of Building an Equitable Baton Rouge,” understandably begs several threshold questions. For one, what is meant by equity? Is equity different from equality? 

Yes, there is a distinct and meaningful difference between equality and equity.  Equality simply means treating everyone the same.  While important, viewing social justice through an equality lens risks exacerbating existing disparities, inequalities and mal-distributions.  Focusing on equality alone compounds the historic conditions which raise the specter of unfairness in the first place. 

Equity, on the other hand, recognizes the enduring impact of past inequities and takes that into account as it assesses how to give everyone enough resources, access and voice to be successful.  It rejects colorblindness and token diversity in favor of a race and class consciousness rooted in historical experience and a deeply held notion of linked fate. 

Another question might be, is Baton Rouge not an equitable place?  To those people I say, welcome to our fair city.  You must be new, so thanks for moving here.  Whether we are willing to admit it or not, those of us from here and who live here know that we are anything but an equitable community.  Quite the contrary – we are a model of racial and spatial stratification. 

We are North and South Baton Rouge with a Mason Dixon line called Florida Boulevard or Government Street, depending upon who you talk to. According to a study by 24/7 Wall Street, we are the 13th most racially segregated metropolitan area in the nation.  That finding is influenced by our racial income gap – the typical black household earns $34,000 a year to the $65,000 earned by the typical white household.  Black poverty is 27.9%; white poverty 10.8%. 

Racial segregation is the mother of sprawl, and accordingly to Smart Growth America we are the most sprawled out metropolitan area under 1 million in population and the 6th most sprawled out metro of any size.  Furthermore, our chart-topping AIDS rate and a top ten murder rate in past years is largely tied to the experiences of people living in 2 or 3 zip codes, all of them majority black and poor. 

A final question might be, what exactly is the challenge?  Perhaps in this room the challenge is not that great.  Much of the information I’ve cited is included in the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s annual City Stats Survey.  Many of you are knowledge experts and have engaged this data on many occasions. But awareness is only half the battle.  Our understanding of this data and its implications is where we tend to diverge.  We see the statistics and perhaps we understand, intellectually, that they do not bode well for our overall quality of life and economic development aspirations. But finding common ground on a way forward has proven difficult and getting harder by the day. 

Statistics provide a snapshot – a freeze frame of the present.  They don’t provide a backstory, however.  I would posit that we can’t agree on a path forward because we don’t agree on how we got here in the first place. 

Culture of Poverty

The stories we tell ourselves about who we are and our journey to now are important.  They shape our historical narrative and our shared identity.  They buttress discursive norms, rhetorics, logics and politics that shape policy and drive decisions about the appropriate allocation of the community’s limited resources. 

One widely held view about the explanation for our seemingly intractable, spatially concentrated, and inter-generationally persistent black poverty is culture.  This is no way unique to Baton Rouge or this specific moment.  The trope of black communities as collections of lazy, willfully ignorant people who revel in loose morality, irresponsibility and dependency predates emancipation.

This is what is called the “culture of poverty” thesis – the argument that culture, more than economics or structural factors – is the primary driver of black poverty and community decline.  Many in our community see the state of our most impoverished and embattled neighborhoods and see merely sites of mass pathology.  If black communities are simply collections of people who pathologically make poor choices and are genetically and culturally predisposed to criminality and dependency, then containment and incarceration appear as rational, legitimate policy responses, no matter the enormity of the human and financial fallout.  Calls for “law and order” and “personal responsibility” precede the deployment of draconian policing, mass incarceration and an all-out attack on the social safety net. 

Books like The New Jim Crow and documentaries like “13th have mainstreamed, to some extent, the awareness of racialized mass imprisonment.  As the most incarcerated state in the nation with not a shred of improvement in crime or quality of life, we know well the failures of this thinking.

None of this is to say that we should not enforce the laws or maintain order.  It is not to minimize poor decision-making or those determined to harm others or themselves.  But poor black people do not have a monopoly on poor decision-making or anti-social behavior.  Consider what we know about drug enforcement and prosecution.  A U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report from the height of the drug war found that while blacks accounted for only 14% of users, they represented 35% of arrests, 55% of convictions and 75% of prison admissions.  Indeed race not only impacts who is charged and locked up, but the very definition of crime and punishment all together.

History of Metropolitan Segregation

But when we think about the challenge of equity in cities like Baton Rouge, there is a broader history we must contend with.  It is a history that counters the culture of poverty thesis.  There has been an explosion of scholarship in the past few years exploring the deep legacy of how urban policy writ-large was developed and deployed to exclude blacks people from access to a middle class created and subsidized in part by their tax dollars, public service and military sacrifice.

I’ve written extensively about how residential racial segregation has been the driving logic behind the land use decisions and urban development patterns of the American metropolis for more than a century.  The scope of racist housing, land use, development and housing finance law, policy and culture is vast – defining every endeavor related to the creation, management and transformation of the built environment in both city and suburb.  These practices shaped metropolitan areas, solidifying patterns of investment, wealth creation, resource disparities and social and economic regulation that exist to this day.  Six practices are worthy of review:

First, there were explicit residential segregation laws passed by cities early in the 20th century and outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1917. Louisiana’s statewide segregation laws performed the same function and survived the Court’s strike of municipal segregation ordinances. 

Second, there were racially restrictive covenants.  Developers, city leaders and white homeowners promoted racially restrictive covenants as essential to retaining home values as black people were considered a blight.  The Supreme Court struck those down in 1948. 

Third, the design of public spaces also served to reinforce black subordination.  The decision to extend sidewalks, bike paths and other connective infrastructure as well as the design of bridges, highways and public parks was deployed in significant measure to enforce segregation. 

Fourth, For more than half a century, the Federal Housing Administration (“FHA”) promoted redlining, a consciously racist housing finance policy that cheated black people out of the government-backed mortgage finance market, arguably the largest driver of individual wealth creation in the country.  From 1934 to 1962, the FHA underwrote $120 billion in home mortgage loans with more than 98% going to white borrowers.   

Fifth, exclusionary zoning allowed locals – mostly in suburban settings – to use the race-neutral tools of minimum lot sizes and prohibitions on apartments to erect barriers to black access to white neighborhoods.    

Finally, local police, civic groups and elected officials openly or tacitly endorsed vigilante violence to keep black residents out of white neighborhoods and intimidate whites who might sell to black buyers. 

All of this has local relevance.  Like many cities we intentionally ran our interstates through black communities, disrupting their social fabrics and undermining property values.  We stunted the development of our parks to avoid integration.  We treated our schools the same.  Our quest for racial segregation has driven an urban form dominated by unconnected streets and one-way-in-one-way-out developments that leave us all sitting in one of the worst traffic jams in the nation. 

This history is not history at all.  It’s ongoing.  Consider the black World War II veteran who was denied a VA-backed mortgage and – if granted one at all – was limited to a segregated neighborhoods where poorly planned and constructed public housing was ultimately placed.  His family was sent on an entirely different trajectory than his white counterpart.  His heirs might have inherited a home that, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has actually declined in value.  The lost ability to build and transfer generational wealth through homeownership is the basis for a racial wealth gap that is only widening.  Add to that the deliberate divestment in those neighborhoods, the stress and trauma of living amidst concentrated poverty, pervasive and still existing racial pay disparities and other devices of black subordination – and how all of it is inter-generationally transferred – and you get a picture of the anatomy of contemporary black poverty.

None of this excuses criminality or irresponsibility, nor am I unaware of the mounting voices in the black community crying out for an end to the killing.  But research has shown that even these struggles accrue more to individual responses to structural, historic factors than some all-encompassing culture.  This is why the culture of poverty thesis is so incoherent and so morally bankrupt: it denies or intentionally distorts the cumulative and pervasive impacts of this history. Furthermore, its obsession with punishment, shame and stigma leads us to waste resources chasing outdated approaches that have shown themselves to be of limited utility if not abject failures.

There is no urban crisis in Baton Rouge, because crisis implies something unplanned or unexpected.  We created the two Baton Rouge’s.  We did it consciously and deliberately, much of it within the lifetimes of everyone in this room.  We created the preconditions for such depravation, poverty, misery and isolation that crime and all manner of social decay are the regrettable but predictable trajectories for the people who live there.      

What we must do now

The good news is that we have yet to scratch the surface of what we could be doing to turn things around.  Our only coordinated response to the problems in poor black communities has been through the criminal justice system.  That has been an unmitigated failure measured in wasted black life, a squandered public trust, unsustainable fiscal imbalances and a reputation for consistently choosing to cut off our noses to spite our collective face.

Take for instance, what we learned from the recent BRAVE controversy.  Some of you may be familiar with my writings on this subject.  A review of the communication between Mayor Broome’s office and the Department of Justice in the early weeks and months of her administration revealed that even when the federal government gave us the money to pursue national violence elimination best practices – which involved both increasing the capacity of law enforcement AND engaging grassroots community organizers, we chose to do the former and not the latter, leaving the money unspent so it could be returned and the grant ultimately cancelled. 

BRAVE did have some impact in violence reduction, but imagine what we might have accomplished if we had pursued a more equitable, holistic approach.

Fortunately, we have other opportunities.  We must support black and minority-owned business growth by pursuing equity in City-Parish contracting.  Studies show that black business anchor black communities.  Our abysmal performance in this regard calls into question our seriousness of our pursuit of sustainable and inclusive economic development. 

Our anti-poverty toolkit must expand to include innovations like workers-owned cooperatives.  Even if we land the large employer who chooses to locate in a blighted area of North Baton Rouge, existing skills gaps and the immediacy of the needs requires the pursuit of localized solutions that help people be the agents of their own turnarounds.

We also must get serious about blight elimination, a known driver of crime and urban decay.  Through a progressive blight elimination program, we can create job opportunities while rehabbing communities.  Chicago’s Neighborhood Rebuild pilot program is doing just that.

Investments in public infrastructure like libraries, parks and mass transit might be obvious on a list like this, but we know these are still politically controversial matters in Baton Rouge.  We must find ways to reaffirm the value of public resources, public infrastructure and public values across our partisan divides.

And if we’re going to invest millions in public development projects, we should prioritize those areas least likely to experience private-sector development.  While we must develop all of Baton Rouge, South Baton Rouge cannot hoard all of the region’s public amenities, no matter how convenient placing them there might be. 

CLOSING

In the wake of the killing of Alton Sterling and officers Gerald, Garafalo and Jackson, I encountered some who lamented, “This is not who we are.”  My response was simply, “This is exactly who we are.” 

The question going forward, however, is who will we be.  Ladies and gentlemen, we must accept that race is not some card game that forces us into a cynical zero-sum tug of war for moral superiority.  The point of confronting this legacy is not to leverage guilt to extort some cheap symbolic concession. 

Race is the essential logic of our social, spatial, economic and political condition.  We can’t rebrand our way out of it.  We can’t kumbaya our way out of it either.  Our problems with crime, education, blight and social division are all rooted in the historic pursuit of black subordination.  We are the only ones that can change course. 

The challenge to building an equitable Baton Rouge is, simply, us.

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