I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. State capitol of the bayous of Louisiana. Home of the Louisiana State University Tigers. Land where streets of stately southern homes are lined by rows of oak trees as old as the country itself. City where Mardi Gras beads hang from power lines year round. Home to crawfish and gumbo, beignets, and daiquiris in go cups.
And also home to the Jaguars of Southern University & the Human Jukebox & the Dancing Dolls. The location of the first bus boycott of the civil rights era, in 1953, organized by the Rev. T.J. Jemison & Mr. Willis Reed, Sr.* Home of the longest desegregation case in the United States, settled in 2003. Where nearly a third of children live under the poverty level. Where blacks and whites are still separated by our own Mason Dixon line that we call Florida Blvd. The city Alton Sterling called home until July 5th.
My husband and I both grew up in South Carolina. We’re more than well aware that racism still exists in this country, 60+ years after the civil rights movement. It took the slaughter of 9 people with brown skin in their own church at Emmanuel AME in Charleston to convince people that perhaps the Confederate flag had no business being on the grounds of the South Carolina State House, though people still seem unconvinced the white murderer was not just “mentally ill” and was, perhaps, a racist fueled by hate. The state prosecutor there is prepping for that case while also prepping for the murder case against a North Charleston police officer accused of murdering motorist Walter Scott during a stop there in the weeks before the Charleston church massacre.
We moved to Baton Rouge 4 years ago. We’d spent 2 years in Reno, Nevada for my husband’s job when we decided to take a move again and head back south. I missed the food, the people, the football, and was tired of the snow and wind. We didn’t have much time to find a rental and get things in order to get there a month after school started in Baton Rouge. We quickly realized rent prices were much higher in the areas of town we’d been told to look, so finding a place we could afford was stressful. We’d been warned the schools left a bit to be desired in Baton Rouge, but I underestimated the severity of the situation. I had no idea the eye opening experience we had unwittingly signed up for when we agreed to move to Baton Rouge.
It was 2012 and my daughter was the only white kid in her entire class of over 25 kids. And we lived in a neighborhood surrounded by nothing but white people and white children. It didn’t make sense. After her first few days passed, my daughter mentioned the kids were “petting” her. They told her they’d never seen a person with “hair like hers” or “spots on their face like hers”. These children had never been around white kids, even though the school was just a couple miles from our home. I noticed quickly the school felt far more like a prison than it did a school. The kids were never allowed to speak to each other unless they were outside on the square pavement where they had “recess” for 15 minutes a day. No talking in the bathrooms, no talking in the cafeteria, no group work together, no talking in car pool while they waited on their parents to pick them up. They seemed to spend most of the year coloring, while teachers barked orders and commands at them. Later that year, after my daughter started coming up with reasons not to go to school, we found out at least two kindergarten teachers were beating kids in the classroom, with one screaming so loud my daughter reported she had to plug her ears and rock in her chair. Every time I visited the classroom, where I didn’t exactly feel welcomed by the teacher, I was warmly welcomed by a whole classroom full of incredibly exuberant children who just wanted to tell me anything and everything about their life. They wanted to talk. They wanted to laugh. They wanted someone to hear them. They wanted to be kids and it was being squashed out of them in the name of compliance inside of a crumbling building masquerading as a school. As much as I wanted to support the idea of keeping my child in a neighborhood school, I simply couldn’t leave her there. I made the decision she’d either get a spot in one of the magnet programs (which she did) or I’d homeschool her. Because I have the luxury of that choice.
It didn’t take long for me to make a statement to my mom about how I never thought I’d see a city this segregated in my lifetime. Watching Ferguson unfold I remember mentioning specifically that I feared it would only take a small incident similar to Mike Brown’s killing to cause major unrest here because there are basically two cities within Baton Rouge, white and black. The public school system is 80% black kids, and that includes schools like my child’s magnet school, where the breakdown is closer to 50/50. In the heart of 70805, the racial breakdown in schools moves to 98-99% black children. The district parcels around the white children it has, putting special programs like gifted and talented services, in the neighborhood schools where they need white bodies. An area of South Baton Rouge, which just happened to consist of mostly (80%) white people and newer schools, attempted to create their own city in the last few years, like several other areas have successfully done, though they failed to gain enough valid signatures to form. The proposed new city, St. George, was the subject of a PBS Frontline special called “Separate and Unequal”. St. George proponents insisted it was not about race, and things “that happened 20-30 years ago” aren’t their fault.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s not our fault. We weren’t there. We didn’t make anyone pick cotton, we didn’t make Rosa sit at the back of the bus, we didn’t sic dogs on people, we weren’t holding the fire hoses, we didn’t draw neighborhood borders, we didn’t deny people mortgages based on the color of their skin, we never lynched a black man. So, I mean…it’s not our fault.
Except we’ve let it continue. Don’t give me this “everything is equal” mess. It’s not. It’s not even close. My nonprofit, The Loveabulls Project, which I started 2 years ago with some of my dearest friends, puts me in 70805 frequently. There’s a lack of pet resources up there, just like everything else the area lacks, so my organization is the bridge between loving pet owners and the care and supplies they can’t reach on “their” side of town. I have met some of the most hard working, determined, fierce, and loving people on the “other side” of Florida Blvd. These are people who pay taxes, who go to parent/teacher conferences, who work multiple jobs to get food on the table for their children. People who wake up early to catch the bus or a ride with their neighbor to a job across town. People who spend half their life battling red tape for services and assistance that so many are concerned with people abusing for kicks. People who are just as tired of hearing gunshots and seeing drugs on their streets as you think you are. People who are trying to do the absolute best they can with what they’ve got to work with and what they’ve got to work with is a short hand of cards. I’ve gotten to know people, heard stories that would be hard for people to believe, hard for me even, until I kept hearing the same themes repeated in many people’s stories. Because they aren’t just stories. These experiences are their life. Their existence. These moments are them.
The people of North Baton Rouge are growing up in neighborhoods surrounded by despair, being treated like criminals in schools from 4 years old until they either graduate or drop out (EBR’s graduation rate is climbing, but graduation rates in North Baton Rouge neighborhoods linger in the 50-60% range)…they see how their neighborhoods are portrayed in the media, they see businesses flocking to South Baton Rouge, they see the investment put into areas that are not theirs. They watched their hospital close, then watched the only other emergency room that was easily and quickly accessible shut down due to funding, and residents of North Baton Rouge now face a 20+ minute ambulance ride to the closest ER in South Baton Rouge. They’re watching their families and friends ripped apart by a justice system that is determined to break the disadvantaged. Mandatory minimum sentences exist for drug charges, you can get life in Angola for non violent crimes under Louisiana’s habitual offender laws, and yet no minimum sentences exist for actual violent crimes like manslaughter, assault with a firearm, or simple rape (Check out this article by Steven Rosenfield for interesting information). The United States incarcerates more people than anywhere in the world. Louisiana incarcerates it’s citizens at a rate higher than any other state in the country. Prisoners are shuffled around private prisons with dollar signs on them and exit prison with a record, harder to employ, with less skills and relationship bonds. It should come as no shock people turn to hustling as a way of making money to keep food in their stomachs. More hustling, more police involvement thanks in part to a departure from community policing and a move toward the “broken windows” approach. And so the cycle continues to feed itself.
What seems so hard for white people to grasp is this isn’t just about black people versus police. The issues with police are the flame points of a deeper, even heavier, even darker problem. We are a city, a country doused in lighter fluid and the men and boys and women killed at the hands of those paid to protect and serve all of us are the points where the fire is catching. This country was built on the backs of the same people we have spent our entire history excluding. You cannot deny this. People aren’t asking for special treatment. They’re asking for help breaking the cycles. They’re asking for people to stand with them while people attempt to change the systems that don’t better us all. When people scream “black lives matter” it’s not discrediting the value of your own white life. It’s a furious, panicked reminder to us that they matter, too. We live in a white washed world where it’s easier to picture a black man as a gang banger than it is a pharmacist or doctor or college professor. We devalue people’s existences without even realizing we’re doing it. When you reach for that door lock on your car at the sight of a black man in a hoodie, you’re doing it. When you refer to the “bad side of town”, you’re doing it. When you want to talk more about dead black men’s criminal records than their life that was lost, you’re doing it. Take a stand against it.
But don’t get it twisted – – black people don’t need our approval or our white advice on how to go about this. They’ve been fighting this fight a long time. Stand up, link arms with your neighbors, tell them you see them. Speak out against injustice when you see it, speak out against racism when you see it or hear it. The causes of the disadvantaged in our world are rarely popular. Stand up anyway. The craziest voices often are the loudest ones in discussions. We must be louder. Too often when bad things arise, the good moves away from it instead of standing amidst it and saying ‘no’. Stand up. Start discussions, but more importantly LISTEN to discussions. Start acknowledging and challenging your own prejudices, your own level of privilege. You want peace? Stand up with other people who want peace. And for the record, “peace” is not the same as “quiet”, so if you’re wanting a city, a country, where people stop protesting, then help them gain the peace on the issues that they feel the need to stand on street corners and outside buildings chanting about. Stand with them for peace.
We aren’t living in a world that’s going backwards in race relations…we’ve been stagnant, sitting right here the whole time. Sure we made progress, but a lot of it was just the execution of a good cover up job that made people feel better about themselves. Help people pull the curtains back. Expose the systems and the mindsets and the people that are consistently holding down poor, predominantly minority communities.
And for the love of all that is holy, stop shouting that “ALL LIVES MATTER!” We know. That’s the point. Right now it feels like some matter a bit less. No one fusses about March of Dimes raising awareness for premature babies. No one tells them “But ALL babies matter!” No one yells at the “Save the whales!” people, talking about how dolphins and sharks and seahorses also matter. I mean, come on, we had a hashtag for a gorilla. We created online petitions for a gorilla. I’m not saying he wasn’t important, but for some reason, having people with brown skin try to bring to light issues that affect them is not appropriate. “Black Lives Matter” is a rallying cry for people who want to bring attention to the very real issues that face the communities and people of color.
Just do your piece. Do your piece to make your community and your country better as a whole. However you can contribute. Step outside your comfort zone and have conversations with new people. Make new friends. Bridge communities, knock down barriers of race and economic status. Find your courage and stand tall. Keep talking. And more importantly, keep listening.
“You should be angry,
you must not be bitter.
Bitterness is like cancer.
It eats upon the host.
It doesn’t do anything to the object of it’s displeasure.
USE that anger, yes.
You WRITE it, you PAINT it, you DANCE it
You MARCH it, you VOTE it.
YOU TALK IT.
NEVER stop talking it.
*added Mr. Willis Reed, Sr’s name 7/19/16, with sincere apologies for originally leaving him out.