On Wednesday, representatives of the Fair Housing Action Center (FHAC) publicly indicated for the first time that the organization, in partnership with national litigation partners, is studying the St. George incorporation effort regarding concerns that it may violate federal civil rights laws.
FHAC Executive Director James Perry commented “A review of information about the impacts of incorporation on the part of St. George indicates that it would have troubling and possibly illegal results in relation to increased school segregation and a racially discriminatory effect on the provision of municipal services in the City of Baton Rouge. The Fair Housing Center may find it necessary to litigate in order to protect the civil rights of all Baton Rouge residents.”
A recent report from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and Baton Rouge Area Chamber lays out a series of troubling impacts regarding the potential incorporation. Should the incorporation effort succeed, the City of St. George will be approximately 70 percent white, and 23 percent Black, compared to the City of Baton Rouge which is a majority-minority city with a population that is 55 percent Black, and 40 percent White. In light of those racial demographic changes, it is especially disturbing that other anticipated impacts include:
Perry states “Due to the increased, racially separate and unequal impacts on schooling that would result from incorporation, and due to the negative impact on city services in Baton Rouge, the incorporation of St. George may violate the Fair Housing Act, including the obligation to affirmatively further fair housing, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Center is also troubled by the fact that the incorporation effort may be part of a larger trend across the country to re-segregate school systems in the wake of federal desegregation orders that have recently expired. For example, similar efforts have been undertaken in Birmingham and the Atlanta area in recent years. Perry comments “The common theme in all of these efforts seems to be a resistance on the part of white, affluent residents to sharing schools and municipal services with their African American neighbors.”
FHAC is a private, non-profit civil rights organization founded in 1995 to eradicate housing discrimination and promote integration. The Center has a history of strategically engaging in impact litigation to protect the civil rights of Louisiana residents covered by the Fair Housing Act. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the organization filed a lawsuit in federal court against St. Bernard Parish over discriminatory zoning ordinances designed to exclude African Americans from living in St. Bernard. The Center repeatedly prevailed in court over the course of more than five years, and the discriminatory decisions of Parish leaders left St. Bernard residents on the hook for millions of dollars in legal fees and penalties. During the course of the litigation, the U.S. Dept of Housing and Urban Development even stepped in and threatened to freeze federal funds to the Parish as a result of their discriminatory behavior.
James Perry comments “Fair housing opportunity is essential because where you live determines so many aspects of your life, including your access to quality education, quality transportation, job opportunities and public services. Part of the reason that we persisted in litigation against St. Bernard Parish is that housing discrimination was blocking access to quality educational opportunities for African American residents. We are disappointed that Louisiana is faced with similar challenges in the St. George incorporation effort. However, we are ready to commit resources to ensure access to equal opportunity for all Baton Rouge residents.”
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