Documentary expected to stoke racial tensions
The proposed city of St. George has found itself in the uncomfortable glow of the national spotlight once again — this time with a 30-minute PBS “Frontline” special scheduled to air nationwide on July 15.
St. George organizers, who provided access and interviews to the “Frontline” reporters for the past eight months, said they are already concerned based on the title of the segment and the 30-second preview that it will paint them in an unfair light.
The segment is called “Separate and Unequal,” and is billed as a documentary about education, class and race in America.
“School segregation is making a comeback, sixty years after the Supreme Court declared separate schools for black and white children unconstitutional,” a news release for the show says. “What’s behind the growing racial divide in America’s schools — and what’s the legacy of Brown v. the Board of Education?”
St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said the previews unfairly portray the issue as a racial one.
“The headline and the body of text that went along with it are not very accurate, and it looks like the opposition wrote it,” Rainey said. “They’re saying it’s white people looking to make a whiter city, but that is simply not the case.”
Rainey said that when PBS initially approached them about the story, they raised these concerns but decided to accommodate the filmmakers because they were promised fairness.
PBS also committed to reporting the story regardless of their level of participation, Rainey said.
“They had a significant amount of access,” he said. “We’ve got nothing to hide, our story has never changed and this has absolutely nothing to do with race.”
Andrew Metz, “Frontline” series senior editor, said in a statement that the documentary would be fair.
“We do not usually comment on the content of our films before broadcast, but “Frontline” has a long tradition of fairness. We respect the complexity of this story, have been reporting it with fairness and rigor, and we hope people will watch our program when it airs on July 15,” Metz said.
The preview features three sound bites from Norman Browning, the leader of the St. George incorporation effort; Mayor-President Kip Holden, who opposes the proposed new city; and state Sen. Bodi White, who unsuccessfully filed bills in the legislature to help create a breakaway school system.
Fueling speculation that the special will focus on the racial aspects of the incorporation, Holden is heard saying, “It will be segregated along race lines and class lines.”
Then, White is featured in an on-camera interview saying, “We have an African-American president. They achieved their goal, who can say we’re not desegregated?”
Rainey said he thought White’s comment was edited to be taken out of context.
The effort to create the new city of St. George was born out of two failed attempts in the state legislature to create a separate school district in the southeast part of the parish.
However, legislators balked at the school system, because supporters were drawing an arbitrary line in the parish, rather than creating a school district around an existing city.
Last year, members of the community, led by Browning, started the process to collect 18,000 signatures, which would put the incorporation proposal to a vote of the people within the boundaries of the proposed city.
The effort has attracted national attention in recent months, with many media outlets focusing on the racial narrative of a more affluent part of the parish breaking off and taking its tax money, leaving behind the poorer inner city.
The new city of St. George would be 70 percent white and 23 percent black, compared with the city of Baton Rouge, which is 55 percent black and 40 percent white, according to an impact study done by LSU economist Jim Richardson. The median household income of a house in St. George will be $30,000 higher than that in the city of Baton Rouge.
The special airs on PBS at 9 p.m. July 15. “Frontline” documentaries reach a broadcast audience of about 2.5 million people, said Patrice Taddonio, a “Frontline” spokeswoman.
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.
For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz.