Edward Pratt: Unfortunate return to the Old South

I joined many Baton Rouge residents the other night to watch public television’s “Frontline” documentary, “Separate and Unequal,” which focused on the St. George community’s effort to form its own city and school system in East Baton Rouge Parish. It makes no difference whether you are pro- or anti-incorporation, we looked like the old racial South. At some point, I expected to see video of swampland and that signature whining banjo music that signifies the South of yesteryear.

Some have complained that the “Frontline” crew was too heavy-handed with race and class in the portrayal of the St. George crowd. Whether the two play major factors has to be proven, but the incorporation folk had to be naive or out of touch with reality if they thought they could divorce themselves from the specter of race and class.

Let’s take a look at the video. At virtually all of the incorporation meetings, there may have been one, maybe two, noticeable African Americans in attendance. I don’t believe I saw any African-American spokespersons who are residents of St. George. Their absence spoke volumes.

Even the cold, hard facts of the proposed city of St. George definitely bring race and class into play.

The new city, according to a study by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Baton Rouge Area Foundation, would be 70 percent white, 23 percent black and 4 percent Asian. By comparison, Baton Rouge is 55 percent black, 40 percent white and 3 percent Asian.

According to the same study, the average household income of a St. George family would be $90,000, compared with $58,000 in Baton Rouge.

The pro-incorporation folks’ decision to bring the Rev. C.L. Bryant, an African-American tea party member, to speak at one of its meetings (no doubt for the edification of “Frontline”) was truly embarrassing — and a transparent ploy that was dead on arrival.

I cringed, and probably wasn’t alone, when incorporation supporter state Sen. Mack “Bodi” White said, “Who can say we’re not desegregated? We have an African-American president. We have an African-American mayor here in Baton Rouge, with a majority white in the parish.” That statement hits a sour note, especially coming from a group whose plan would further segregate the city and the public school system.

That aside, do the St. George incorporators have a valid point about the need to improve EBR public schools? Yes, they do. There are a lot of parents shelling out thousands of dollars to send their children to private schools who would bring them back to public schools if things got better.

Additionally, what the “Frontline” piece did not address was the large number of African-American parents who have pulled their children out of public schools. I have friends who are educators, and those who have retired have complained about the tough conditions in the classrooms — that they are fed up with unruly students, out-of-control parents and red tape that robs them and deserving students of precious teaching and learning time.

Still, the public school system is fighting to deliver the best possible education it can to students, many of whom are in tough socioeconomic environments that enter into some classrooms. Urban education is not pretty.

I will say, for the record, that both of my children are public school graduates, and I would send them again.

And, I also work with a group trying to improve my alma mater, McKinley High School. While none of us has children there, we believe the school can only get better if we are willing to help.

What I didn’t hear from the incorporation folks were comments about using their energy, money and influence to sit with the School Board and others to suggest ways of improving public schools. I needed to hear that.

With the purse strings that they have, they could influence change, rather than just saying, “Let’s build a wall around our neighborhood and forget about those not like us.” Baton Rouge will be better with all of us working together. Creating barriers is not the solution.

Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is epratt1972@yahoo.com.