JR Ball: Council stunt widens Baton Rouge divide

    JR Ball

    So … what have we learned from the latest Baton Rouge controversy to spin out of control? Despite all the lament and vows to do better after the 2016 summer from hell, as well as the repeated pledges of unity promotion from our mayor, the racial divide in East Baton Rouge Parish continues to expand. More alarming—if that’s possible—is the vitriol, especially on social media, is getting angrier, meaner, ruder and more militant.

    Welcome to the America’s next great city.

    Ignore it or minimize it if you choose, but there’s no denying Baton Rouge has a problem that’s ripping apart an already parochial parish.

    Our latest racial tug of war began less than a week after the burial of Buddy Amoroso—the white Republican Metro Councilman from District 8 who was tragically killed July 1 in a biking accident—when four black Democrats on the council put out a terse, two-sentence press release stating they would abstain from voting on anyone recommended by the council to temporarily fill the vacancy.

    Though there’s no law or ordinance mandating it, council tradition is the family gets to nominate the temporary replacement in the case of the death or departure of the incumbent. Twice previously—in 1991 and 2001—a council member has died while in office and each time the council appointed the respective widow as the replacement.

    The goal of these four non-traditionalists was simple: Prevent the council from reaching the necessary seven votes to name a nine-month replacement for Amoroso within the required 20-day window, thus shifting the decision to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who they hoped would appoint an African-American progressive to represent those residing in the largely white, especially conservative district.

    Imagine, so went the theory, how much racial leveling of the Baton Rouge playing field could occur in nine months if a gridlocked council of seven white Republicans and five black Democrats became a 6-6 split?

    Normally one would think the race of those involved should not matter, but, sadly, here in Baton Rouge, race always seems to matter.

    Hell, one of the four, Councilwoman Chauna Banks, went on Facebook to opine putting a “progressive” in the heart of the suburbs would be “a tremendous blow to the St. George effort!”

    Not only was this an ill-conceived, politically naïve and emotionally insensitive plan—playing out while many were still grieving Amoroso’s death—but it drove a needless wedge into the racial, economic and geographic divides so many in this community are fighting to bridge.

    As for those pushing for the incorporation of St. George, the dust-up was like manna from heaven.

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    One can reasonably fight to change tradition and the oft-mentioned status quo, but—in a parish that clings to its love of single-member districts—it’s simply wrong to demand the temporary appointment of someone to elected office who shares exactly zero of the views and beliefs of the constituents this person would represent. If these four council members think the interests of African-Americans are underrepresented on the council, how about people in District 8 having essentially no representation if these four had their way?

    I’m a proponent of at-large districts, but those who steadfastly fight to maintain the tradition of single-member districts running a parishwide government can’t have it both ways.

    Perhaps the only rational voice in the whole affair came from Councilwoman Tara Wicker. Not only did she reject an offer to join her four African-American comrades on this crusade, but also made clear the mistake committed by Amoroso in 2016—nominating a white Republican to replace the departing C. Denise Marcelle, after the black Democrat won a seat in the Legislature—didn’t make this mistake right.

    As wrongheaded as this stunt was, it is equally wrong to ignore the very real frustration—and, yes, anger—in most corners of the African-American community.

    People are upset that no federal or state criminal charges were filed against the two police officers responsible for the shooting death of Alton Sterling. Many believe former Mayor Kip Holden, an African-American, spent his 12 years in office ignoring “his” community while pandering to the white-dominated business community. And then there’s the frustration over being ignored and put down by centuries of institutional racism as well as the harsh economic realities left behind by the white flight set in motion by the Baton Rouge public schools’ 40-year desegregation case.

    Come up with any excuse or insult you want, but the economic disparity and lack of opportunity in the African-American community is very real. And while those demanding change can scream about the need for government to do something, nothing of substance is going to happen until the private sector drives that change.

    Until then, nonsense moves like this only makes the chasm wider and our very real problem that much harder to solve.