From The Archive
Tom Gogola
No. 25  July 2014

The Jim Crow Soft-Shoe Segregationists of St. George

  

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The Mall of Louisiana is a sprawling, indoor-outdoor retail complex whose commodity affiliations run the gamut from a tucked-away Spencer’s sin emporium to an ever-bustling Chick-fil-A in the food court. There’s a smattering of region-specific shops, including one called Storyville, which offers ersatz totems of the heyday of New Orleans jazz life. It shares the name of, but exactly nothing else about, the neighborhood where Louis Armstrong grew up.

But this blandified memorial to a far livelier cultural past does have totemic significance of its own. Located in the suburban settlement of St. George, the Mall of Louisiana—and most particularly, the millions in tax revenue it generates—was, until recently, ground zero in a fiercely pitched battle over the economic, political, and racial makeup of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital city. This May, the Baton Rouge city council voted to annex the mall firmly within the city’s borders—thus claiming for the majority-black city one of the key economic prizes that had been in the sights of a new cohort of affluent (and mostly white) would-be municipal secessionists. But that setback for the region’s secessionist forces is unlikely to slow the momentum of their movement, which thrives on a powerful compound of free-market development stratagems, movement-conservative swagger, and new-millennial racial animus.

St. George, like many of the predominantly white and well-off communities that have sprung up along the New South’s exurban interior, has drawn a steady stream of salaried professional workers away from the commercial center of Baton Rouge, which hosts not only the state government, but also Louisiana State University. According to the regional-development playbook touted by social prophets such as Richard Florida, the capital city should be a magnet for the Information Age’s knowledge elite, who are known to savor the funky authenticity of subculture-friendly communities. But there’s, you know, Storyville the mall logo and then there’s Storyville the legendary urban neighborhood. Baton Rouge may have attractive research and lobbying concerns, and a robust jobs economy, but a quarter of the population there is living in poverty. Fifty-five percent is black. These trends have continued in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 landfall. Up to four hundred thousand storm evacuees, mostly from New Orleans, fled to Baton Rouge, and some never left. Many of them, too, are poor and black.

So in recent months, the professional class of St. George has grown restive. Baton Rouge’s rump southern suburb is now looking to put itself on the map as a new city, steeped in the great American first principles of piety and untrammeled free enterprise. Incorporation activists have been collecting signatures in a petition drive to put the issue to a vote—a vote that, under state law, would be limited to residents of St. George. Anticipating a favorable outcome, a local group, with image-and-branding help from a staunchly conservative media-consulting firm, has already launched a website heralding the arrival of the City of St. George.

Nominally, the secession movement in St. George is about schools and local control. The architects of the incorporation plan have adopted the PR-friendly mantra “Local Schools for Local Children.” It’s true that Baton Rouge’s school system has room for improvement. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber has issued a study noting that nearly six in ten district students in the 2011–12 school year were enrolled in schools that the state deems to be “failing” or “almost failing” in basic academic performance. Twenty percent of high schoolers dropped out; another 30 percent of students are enrolled in area private schools.

Throughout the South, rich municipalities have begun to raise the specter of secession—despite the associations that carry over from the last big push by a privileged white Southern elite to carve out a brave new civic destiny for itself, during the years 1861 to 1865. Similar movements to inaugurate breakaway townships and school districts have lately taken off in Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.

But the St. George effort is different. For starters, it furnishes a detailed case study in how the unvarnished rhetoric of white reaction has been repackaged as a sunny faith in the mystical healing powers of school choice. And it has drawn a corps of politically prominent supporters who are long-standing entrepreneurs of far-right reaction.

The present effort took off in earnest last year, after the state legislature failed to endorse a plan to fund a new school district in St. George. So in the summer of 2013, a group of liberty-loving Christian activists launched the incorporation scheme, which would divide the greater Baton Rouge area roughly in half. The southern side of town would cleave off into St. George, home to the Mall of Louisiana and at least one inviting parcel of sagging commercial-residential development. The other half would be everyone else—everyone else, that is, who wasn’t doctrinaire, connected, or just generally canny enough to get in on the ground floor of this remarkable boondoggle of ideologically driven urban reconfiguration. The incorporation plan would create a new city of more than one hundred thousand residents in eighty-five square miles of previously unincorporated land in the city-parish conglomeration that is greater Baton Rouge.

The alternative to incorporation is annexation—the tactic that the Baton Rouge city council employed to keep the Mall of Louisiana within its civic orbit. This more common procedure has permitted other localities within the state to streamline the frequently confused lines of authority stemming from Louisiana’s unique patchwork system of combined city and parish governance. As both a city and a parish, greater Baton Rouge is hobbled by lots of internecine turf wars—mostly over education and public safety—a layer of civic chaos that the city’s political leaders say they can ill afford as they, like municipalities throughout the rest of the country, continue to dig out from the 2008 economic meltdown.

But a consolidated city of Baton Rouge didn’t sit well with the suburbanites in St. George, steeped as they are in the antigovernment orthodoxies of the Tea Party insurrection—or, in some cases, their milder variant from the Gingrichite wing of the GOP. And so in November 2013, St. George boosters went into high gear to publicize the benefits of incorporation (itself a much more palatable term than secession).

Enter TPG Capital, very, very quietly, stage right.

Of course, none of this has been characterized in racial terms. No, the leaders of the incorporation movement present themselves in public as concerned parents, seeking to ensure better performance standards for the schools their children attend, and they make sure to promise a slew of trickle-down economic gains for the parish as a whole. Who could possibly be opposed to that?

The St. George secessionists insist that their movement won’t harm the finances of or quality of life in present-day Baton Rouge. But the numbers so far say otherwise. A recent study commissioned by local business and civic groups said splitting off St. George would mean $85 million in lost annual revenue for the city-parish coffers, some of which is linked to the beleaguered St. George retail-residential complex, whose name positively wafts Old South wisteria: Perkins Rowe.

That report also highlighted a stark and undeniable demographic difference between the city of Baton Rouge and the proposed St. George fiefdom: the former is mostly black and significantly less well off than the latter.

“The mean household income for the proposed city will be $30,000 higher than the City of Baton Rouge,” the report noted, adding that “more than 60 percent of households in Baton Rouge have incomes below $50,000.” St. George, meanwhile, is the reverse image of Baton Rouge, in economic terms: 60 percent of households in St. George have incomes above $50,000. Further to the point: St. George is about 70 percent white; the city of Baton Rouge is about 55 percent black.

The White-Washed New Social Contract

Those numbers have spurred some acrobatic displays of studiously “postracial” rhetoric from the secession movement. As the St. George incorporation plan has gained momentum, it has become a study in the elaborate protocols of racial denialism on the new-millennial right.

One common bond among the promoters of the incorporation plan, who otherwise run the gamut from Rand Paul libertarians to Ben Carson–style culture warriors, is the shared refrain that the plan has nothing to do with race. What’s more, it never had anything to do with race—and how dare you imply it has anything to do with race in the first place?

But race is, of course, an inescapable motivating force here. The fear of sharing schools and other civic accommodations with the city of Baton Rouge’s majority black population is, after all, what fueled the initial wave of suburban exodus toward St. George in the first place, beginning in the mid-sixties. The incorporation movement amounts to a variation on the old phenomenon of “white flight” to the suburbs. In the case of the St. George plan, the aggrieved white population isn’t fleeing. Instead, it’s proposing to morph itself into a predatory libertarian microrepublic, one that will do a good deal more than simply turn its back on the poorer, blacker inner city.

This new fever dream of a free-standing dynasty of low-tax suburban deregulation will draw sustenance directly from the adjacent city of Baton Rouge, where most of the area’s black people live. (St. George is about 23 percent black.) As plans for a great educational and cultural promise of a new municipal dawn for the citizens of St. George unfold, the vultures are coming home to roost. This kinder, more convenient return to Jim Crow just makes sense, as supporters of the incorporation plan argue. But for black residents of Baton Rouge, the sense it makes is all too plain; the incorporation of St. George represents a formal ratification of the two-tiered, racialized urban life that they’ve already come to know.

Jasmine Vaughn is working the Celebrity Stop Makeup kiosk at the Mall of Louisiana. She is twenty-six and African American. She went to a local Christian high school and describes herself as a cultural conservative who is not altogether keen on “California values,” but she does have a refreshing live-and-let-live attitude about gays.

She says her family has lived on both sides of the proposed new border and speaks of the “unspoken segregation” at the heart of black-white relations in Baton Rouge.

A dustup over a series of dances in nearby St. Francisville was a case in point, she said. Organizers of the events apparently informed black participants that they would technically be welcome—but that if they did go to certain dances, “they’d be the only black person there,” Vaughn says. There were certain days designated, unofficially, for blacks, and others for whites. “That goes on all the time,” she says. “It’s just accepted.”

Looking at the well-appointed retail outlets around her, Vaughn adds, “We can work here, we can shop here, but we’re always looked at in a certain type of way. It’s an unspoken thing.”

The Committee for the Incorporation of St. George gets much of its strategic support from area business leaders who specialize in their own brand of behind-the-scenes suasion. Not surprisingly, a few are at the helm of enterprises already based in St. George that would stand to reap substantial economic benefits from the breakaway movement.

Local players have businesses in medicine, education, media, consulting, construction, and real estate, and, as is often the case in Louisiana’s capital, the lords of local commerce are also involved in various faith-based and conservative civic initiatives. The big-picture political thinking behind the incorporation effort may be libertarian, but most of its civic partisans came of political age imbibing the old-time religion of conservative backlash.

Norman Browning is the founder of the Committee for the Incorporation of St. George. He also owns a real estate company in Baton Rouge, and co-owns another company called Genesis Medical Products. As if the biblical name weren’t enough of a clue, the firm’s promotional materials explain that it’s in the business of providing both prayers and “durable medical equipment” to its client base.

Meanwhile, out-front supporters of the incorporation plan, such as Woody Jenkins, have deep connections with the broader conservative movement. Jenkins was the first director of the Council for National Policy, founded by the evangelical culture-war guru Tim LaHaye in 1981 to lobby on behalf of Christianist initiatives in Congress.

In his new guise as a champion of local choice and local students, Jenkins launched a new online publication called the St. George Leader. The Leader’s Facebook page is short on information on incorporation, but it does, on occasion, link out to WorldNetDaily—the conspiracy-minded site on the fringe right that recently ran afoul of Google after the search engine’s executives declared that its reliably race-baiting headlines were a form of hate speech, and so not eligible to be included in Google’s ad program.

You’d think it would undercut the piously intoned “postracial” rhetoric of the incorporation plan to have a website conspicuously identified with the effort hawking the rank racial effluvia of WorldNetDaily. But figures like Jenkins understand the benefits of dropping all the enlightened talk of color blindness before certain constituencies for the sake of drumming up popular support among a conservative base trained to heed the dog whistles of white resentment. Longtime watchers of Louisiana politics remember Jenkins for an especially flagrant trespass against federal election law. The FEC fined Jenkins’s 1996 Senate campaign for concealing its purchase of an automated phone bank made up of supporters of former Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke; the phone bank dated from Duke’s own gubernatorial campaign in 1991. The purchase was made by none other than Tony Perkins—then working as a senior Jenkins campaign aide, but now far better known for his work atop the Family Research Council, one of the cultural right’s most efficient sources of anti-gay bigotry masquerading as a pro-family policy agenda.

Meanwhile, John Couvillon, a Republican pollster who lives in the contested area of St. George, is providing background research to bat back any and all questions involving race. But Couvillon’s message also veers in strikingly divergent directions, depending on who he thinks is listening to him.

Couvillon runs a company called JMC Enterprises of Louisiana/JMC Analytics and Polling. He has been combating adverse press reports about the incorporation effort; recently his website denounced a Huffington Post article on the St. George fight that, as he put it, was spreading “the insinuation . . . that the incorporation of St. George had racial undertones to it as a ‘white flight’ phenomenon.”

This is a typical example of the rhetorical back-switching involved in the St. George PR push. In reality, the only people voicing the white-flight argument are those who seek to refute it. White flight is, of course, a relic of the first wave of the residential desegregation wars of the fifties and sixties. But in order to appear enlightened and postracial, the purveyors of the St. George hard sell must pivot off the straw-man notion that opponents of the incorporation plan are wild-eyed race fundamentalists, obsessively refighting the fifty-year-old landmark struggles over racial equality.

Conservative postracialism demands a prescribed set of false tactics, including the dusting-off of the sixties rhetoric of white flight to provide a soothing cover story about why opponents are wrong about white flight. The red-herring research from Couvillon dodges the main racial issue at hand: the “black flight” of the hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians who evacuated to Baton Rouge after Katrina.

Meanwhile, Couvillon gave some insight into his own thinking on the “postracial” conservative push in a 2012 interview with the National Review Online. Trying to explain Obama’s post-convention bump in the polls, he told Jim Geraghty, “At the simplest level, people ‘like’ Obama because they see him as a trailblazer—identity politics is still a very powerful thing for many racial and ethnic minorities—who appears to have a good marriage and attractive children.”

The slippery posturing on racial matters from the white backers of the plan gets added traction from another prominent advocate: C. L. Bryant, an African American Tea Party activist who has appeared at civic podiums promoting incorporation, mostly to put to bed the notion that St. George’s secession would render the city of Baton Rouge a glorified Bantustan. Bryant’s case against the racial argument has been unsurprisingly platitudinous—in effect, trust me, I’ve studied this. But the simple fact of his presence among the leadership of the incorporation movement complicates any straightforward effort to weigh the likely racial impact of the push for St. George’s independence.

In St. George, the aggrieved white population isn’t fleeing. Instead, it’s proposing to morph itself into a predatory libertarian microrepublic.

And that is just how the incorporation boosters want it. Their unceasing mantra is that the flight from Baton Rouge is spurred by class, not race—which is to say that more comfortable, upward-striving households in the capital are already streaming into outlying suburban neighborhoods, in search of peace and quiet, better services, and of course, better public schools.

But if you dig a bit beneath the surface of this civic showdown, another curious specter emerges, one that recalls a more recent episode of culture-war hucksterism on the Southern right. During the ill-fated mid-nineties lobbying career of Ralph Reed under Jack Abramoff’s tutelage, the former Christian Coalition leader had promised to deploy an army of evangelical activists to block the development of a planned tribal casino in Louisiana so as to clear the path for a rival tribe—also, of course, Abramoff clients—to proceed with its Louisiana casino development.

While Reed’s star was badly tarnished by that whole affair, there’s no reason to think that the lure of gambling revenues has diminished for the ideological entrepreneurs captaining movements like the St. George incorporation effort. In this respect, one of the incorporation-related maneuvers that bears close watching in the months ahead is happening well offstage from all the talk of white flight or the glorious dawn of enhanced educational liberty.

A Texas-based private equity firm, TPG Capital, has recently purchased a stake in the complex at Perkins Rowe. That development has already tried, and largely failed, to carry the banner of right-leaning policy innovation. Launched in 2009 as a sort of neo-New Urbanist free-market empowerment zone—retail outlets, a movie theater, medical industrial companies, apartments, and hotels all share the space—the site is a rare blight in the otherwise bustling retail economy of St. George. It’s spent the past four years in foreclosure proceedings, and would presumably attract a whole new kind of motivated investor once St. George is unshackled from the revenue bonds of greater Baton Rouge.

So: Enter TPG, very, very quietly, stage right. The firm’s move on Perkins Rowe, uncovered in the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, might seem at first glance an odd fit with its other high-profile acquisitions—such as the 2013 takeover of Southern California’s ritzy Gelson’s supermarket chain.

Until, that is, you scan TPG’s storehouse of recent acquisitions and come across this suggestive item: in 2006 the firm bought out the casino and resort giant Harrah’s, which happens to own the only license to build land-bound casinos in Louisiana (it currently operates one, in New Orleans). So far, TPG has stayed mum about its plans for the Perkins Rowe site. But any observer of the byways of development in southeastern Louisiana doesn’t have to spend much time connecting the dots here.

A casino in St. George would represent more than a staggering new infusion of revenue for an already well-heeled new municipality. It would also fit neatly into TPG’s projected plans for long-term capitalization. The firm has been seeking an opportune time to float an initial public offering, and thereby increase its current $55 billion portfolio. Nothing would calm the check-writing hands of IPO investors like the prospect of all that free money coursing through the corridors of a new Harrah’s development in St. George.

This is all still conjecture, of course. TPG may elect to erect a tasteful high-end grocery outlet at Perkins Rowe, or flip the property to some other investor altogether. But the knotty tangle of sanctimony and vice that has long propelled the course of Louisiana politics suggests that, at a minimum, it would be foolhardy to bet against the seductive draw of a Harrah’s casino complex within easy reach of the Mall of Louisiana.

Regardless of what TPG does with its Perkins Rowe parcel, the battle for hospitality dollars is clearly under way in St. George. Late last year, Mike Wampold, a major Baton Rouge developer and contributor to the Republican Party, purchased a $1 million property in Perkins Rowe and told the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report that he’d consider building a hotel there. What’s more, he explained, he was buying the lot purely as a defensive move. Wampold owns another hotel across the main commercial road, Bluebonnet Drive. “I didn’t want someone else to buy it and put a hotel there,” he explained to the Business Report. Wampold Companies has made campaign contributions of about $100,000 since 1996, according to the watchdog website OpenSecrets.org. All but $3,000 of that money has gone to Republican candidates.

When there’s a land rush on vacant lots in a yet-to-be-incorporated city, well, that’s the sort of fast-and-loose movement of capital that the word “boomtown” was coined to describe.

The House Wins

While St. George’s prophets of independence hymn the wonders of entrepreneurship and economic liberty, the main development projects in the pipeline appear to be postindustrial sluices for disposable income. Regardless of whether a casino finally lands there, the economic profile of the initiative’s present backers—hoteliers, real estate developers, medical-equipment salesmen, conservative media submoguls—makes it likely that the new St. George will shape up as another pricey New South satellite of the hospitality trade, much like many erstwhile Florida convention-and-leisure destinations now gone belly-up in the wake of the ’08 crack-up. It doesn’t tax the civic imagination to envision the whiter, sleeker St. George hosting, say, medical equipment conventions in atrium-lobbied new hotels filled with local (but not too local) hospitality workers, some of them refugees from Katrina.

And in a perverse way, this also means that the boosters of the new St. George are also banking on the ongoing failure of Baton Rouge’s urban schools. Suppose, as now seems likely, all the coming decisions about incorporation break in the favor of St. George’s business elite. At that point, the policy playbook of the state’s ambitious, sanctimonious, and politically savvy governor, Bobby Jindal, would kick into gear. Ever since much of southeast Louisiana was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, state and federal Republican leaders have strived to transform it into a showcase for the dubious virtues of corporate-backed takeovers of public schools, with the destruction of the state’s teacher’s union as an added bonus.

Beginning with George W. Bush’s ideologically driven bids to make the storm-ruined (and already underfunded) greater New Orleans school system into a playground for the corporate-funded charter school movement, the drumbeat of school privatization has not let up anywhere in Louisiana. The state’s new market-besotted education status quo is neatly summed up in a pair of interlocking factoids: Louisiana ranks forty-ninth in education outcomes, but first in the nation when it comes to the explosion of charter schools. At last count, 85 percent of public school students in New Orleans attend charter schools—whereas the national average of students enrolled in charters is around 5 percent.

Jindal signed a new voucher law in 2012, so low-income parents (which in Louisiana means, overwhelmingly, black parents) can redeem vouchers to a broader range of private and public schools. He’s being sued by Eric Holder’s Justice department over the law, which, Holder says, runs afoul of longstanding federal oversight of school desegregation efforts in Louisiana.

While Louisiana’s charterized, voucherized schools have yet to show any meaningful progress in educational achievement, policy outcomes are largely beside the point, so far as the St. George secessionists are concerned: in public forums, they can claim with a straight face that poor kids of any color can attend any school they like, across district lines. Never mind that the kids most likely to be uprooted, inconvenienced, and shuttled from one end of the parish to the other would share a common economic profile and skin pigmentation.

The school-choice rhetoric propelling the secession movement involves the same racial dynamic that Jasmine Vaughn pinpointed in the Mall of Louisiana. Call it the “nudge” approach to Jim Crow: school choice in a racially segmented place like East Baton Rouge Parish functions to lure citizens along certain paths of conduct that the political leadership class would really rather they followed. Black people are told, in essence, that you’re free to work in the area’s booming new service economy—but, when it comes to exercising other choices, it would be better all around if you were to stay out of our school district. You might be the only black family there, and we wouldn’t want your child to feel uncomfortable.

In the plans afoot for an incorporated St. George, the outlines of this social contract are coming into sharp relief. The payoff to Baton Rouge’s “black community” boils down to low-paying work in the service sector, via more hotel, retail, and, perhaps, casino jobs.

Promoters of the secession campaign are pushing to fast-track incorporation on the grounds that it would nail down footloose investment capital all that sooner. As the boosterish website for the St. George incorporation initiative explains, the whole idea is to “embark on a pro-growth, pro-private sector agenda.” Better yet, say supporters of incorporation, everyone will benefit: “Our pro-growth agenda will bring people back into East Baton Rouge Parish.”

But here’s the curious thing: no one’s been leaving East Baton Rouge Parish. Indeed, the municipality has seen its population swell over the past decade, partly with refugees from Katrina. The most ludicrous claim among the special-pleading talking points for the secession movement is that Louisiana municipalities have been obstructing the flow of energetic capital through its predestined channels of heroic self-expression. In reality, the case for the St. George secession movement revolves around a non-problem: it would further cut red tape for developers in a state where home-rule is already given enormous deference, via a state charter that grants extreme leeway to localities. By detaching St. George from the local governance structure that its supporters contend is stymieing opportunity, the secessionists would pile on more giveaways to an already lavishly indulged investor class. These hard-working entrepreneurs would be spared the ignominy of having to work around urban Democrats and their poorer, blacker constituencies—but in practical terms, that just means paying off a different kind of civic power structure.

In Louisiana, the dominant pigmentation of a given power structure counts for a lot. But the arbiters of racial reaction also understand the need for some protective coloration in a rhetorically postracial America. A project like the St. George secession movement has drawn such heated statewide interest in part because it promises to square the vexing circle that is conservative activist politics in the twenty-first century. The libertarian doctrine of a commercially savvy color-blindness predicated solely on individual market choice will permit the traditional captains of Cajun state commerce to land in their comfort zones—and should the St. George experiment prove a viable, easily replicated model elsewhere, to come into a good deal of political power into the bargain.

This means, among other things, that the apostles of the newest version of the New South can bypass all the infighting that has lately paralyzed the American right’s forays into electoral politics. There need be no awkward divide between a traditional GOP business establishment and an evangelical insurgency when the same civic fathers are peddling school vouchers and state-of-the-art medical equipment bolstered by personal prayer.

Conversely, the Christian right activists in town might well end up taking a page from the Ralph Reed playbook and see fit to suspend their objections to the lesser vice of gambling in return for a generous slice of casino revenues. Politics is the art of compromise, after all, and nothing inures suburban power brokers to operational pragmatism like the prospect of unmolested revenue.

It could all be so simple, you see—if only everyone would stop talking about race.

Tom Gogola is news editor of the North Bay Bohemian, a weekly paper in Northern California. He was formerly a criminal justice reporter for The Lens, an investigative news site in New Orleans.

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