Two worlds in one city, divided by race and class


BATON ROUGE (Louisiana) • If you grew up black in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, you know the street corner where Mr Alton Sterling lost his life last week. For me, it's on the other end of the neighbourhood in which my father opened his law practice before becoming a judge.

It's down the street from my current church and up the street from where I first started a youth mentoring programme. From now on, however, the image of my city includes that of a visibly restrained man being shot at point-blank range, then left to bleed to death while members of our police force picked his pockets for a gun.

That is not the only glimpse of Baton Rouge that the world is seeing now. The other image is one of peace, resistance and civil disobedience. It's one that says - after a week in which two men were killed by police officers and after the cowardly attacks on police officers and peaceful demonstrators in Dallas - we are willing to do the work necessary to turn our community around.

Protests in Baton Rouge in the past few days have so far led to hundreds of arrests, including that of Mr DeRay Mckesson, who is a prominent voice in the Black Lives Matter movement. This is all happening in my city.

I feel truly blessed to have been born and raised in Baton Rouge and to be bringing up my young children here. I would love to tell you about our rituals around family, food and football. Despite our many virtues, we are a community with a long, troubled racial past. Much of the Baton Rouge we experience today is a direct consequence of that past. We were home to the first organised bus boycott of the civil rights movement and the nation's longest-running school desegregation case. The latter distinction continues to shape our city in profound ways.

Present-day Baton Rouge is essentially two cities. One is south Baton Rouge: a prosperous and amenity-filled, predominantly white and middle class network of cul-de-sac neighbourhoods and upscale shopping centres. The other is north Baton Rouge: a marginalised and forgotten collection of the city's older neighbourhoods and neglected infrastructure. It is largely poor and black, and it is where Mr Sterling's life came to a tragic, unnecessary end.

Many residents spend their entire lives in south Baton Rouge without ever venturing into our city's northern neighbourhoods. If dropped off at the corner of North Foster Drive and Fairfields Avenue - the scene of Sterling's killing - too many in our city would need GPS to find their way home.

I grew up in both north and south Baton Rouge, but before the city was so spread out and starkly divided. A few years ago, my wife and I moved from our old home, a block from what is essentially the north-south dividing line, to south Baton Rouge to be closer to her job. Church, family and our civic commitments require that we traverse that line almost daily.

It's only by crossing that line that one can reconcile the more affluent neighbourhoods of south Baton Rouge with the city's grim statistics. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013, Baton Rouge ranked first in the nation for estimated HIV and Aids rates per 100,000 people. For many years, we've been one of the nation's top murder capitals. Black men in East Baton Rouge Parish had a 46 per cent high school graduation rate in 2011-2012. One-third of black residents live below the poverty line. And a vast majority of them are concentrated in north Baton Rouge.

Recently, there was an organised effort to form something called the City of St George. The goal was for south Baton Rouge to break off and form a new city, a move that would have exacerbated our community's growing stratification. The effort ultimately failed, but we now all live in a city in which we know that a significant percentage of our neighbours want out.

Too many view the lives of people in north Baton Rouge as the cumulative result of poor choices, weak values and dependency. It's an intolerable lie predicated on the erasure of all of our city's and nation's history. Like many urban communities, north Baton Rouge is the result of specific policy choices, social patterns and the toll that all of it eventually takes on neighbourhoods, families and individuals. It's a very American story of how black people have systematically been denied the opportunity to live in safe and stable neighbourhoods. No amount of "individual responsibility" or "bootstrapping" will change that.

In the past few years, many of us have worked to bring attention to the challenges facing north Baton Rouge. A lack of access to reliable public transportation, quality healthcare, youth mentors and nutritious food are among the many crises that define day-to-day life in this half of this city.

This past weekend, teenagers from the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition, a college-prep mentoring organisation I co-founded, planned and led a peaceful march attended by more than 1,000 people. There is a dedicated, multiracial coalition of civic and justice-minded folks working hard towards a more equitable and humane future. But the suffering grows every day.

This is the context within which a man is led to sell CDs at midnight to feed his family. This is the context for the anger, frustration and exhaustion erupting not just from the corner of North Foster and Fairfields, but from all over the city.

There is a line running through the middle of Baton Rouge. It's a colour line. A class line. A line by which you can gauge which lives matter more. It's a line deliberately drawn and one about which too many are indifferent. And it mocks each aspiration we have to be a great city.


• Christopher J. Tyson is a professor at Louisiana State University's Law Centre.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'Two worlds in one city, divided by race and class'. Print Edition | Subscribe