Race in rural America: Physical separation 'has an effect on your thinking'

Washington Post

 Espinola Quinn views her quaint Louisiana town with a mix of love and loathing. It's the place her parents — a bar owner and a soybean farmer — raised her; the place where nearly every face is familiar; the spot where she and her husband built their own sprawling house on the edge of the bayou and raised their three girls.

But St. Martinville is also disturbingly segregated: The town still holds separate white and black proms. And Quinn, who is black, hopes her daughters will make their own lives somewhere else.

"The 1964 Civil Rights Act has not come here yet," said Quinn, who opted to bus her older daughters out of the parish for school and is now homeschooling her youngest, a 15-year-old.

"The community is still physically separated," and that, she said, "has an effect on your thinking."

A new nationwide Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted this spring finds that although rural Americans are more likely to see their communities as neighborly, safer and having better public schools than people in large cities, those opinions come with wide racial disparities.

Black rural Americans — most of whom live in the South — are far less likely than their white neighbors to feel positively about their communities, the poll finds. Sixty percent of blacks say their area is an excellent or good place to raise children, compared with 80 percent of whites. Rural blacks are 25 percentage points less likely than rural whites to give their community positive marks on safety and are 29 points less likely to say their area is a place where people look out for one another. Rural Hispanics tend to fall in between whites and blacks in rating their communities.

Past surveys have found sharp racial divisions among urban and suburban residents on similar questions, but the Post-Kaiser poll of about 1,700 adults provides a rare look at views of African-Americans and Hispanics in rural communities where they account for less than 2 in 10 residents.

A few blocks north of Quinn's neighborhood off Main Street, the town seems to cut in half, transitioning from predominantly black to predominantly white.

There, Logan Verret and his friends said most of the people they know in St. Martinville send their children to private school, vote Republican and "work hard." Thousands of Louisianans have lost their jobs over the past few years of falling oil prices, but while times are tough, St. Martinville still has "a very strong middle-class society," said Verret, 23.

But Verret and his buddies, who were having lunch at the town's Kajun King restaurant on a recent afternoon, acknowledged that not everyone in St. Martinville shares their views and experience.

Walk out the doors of the Cajun eatery, and there's a newly renovated church across the street, its walls a clean yellow and buttercream and its lawn neatly trimmed. City Hall, the police department and the white-pillared courthouse are nearby, and the sidewalks recently received a $1 million repair.

"When you pass the courthouse, it seems sloppier," Verret said, referring to the predominantly black side of town.

The segregation creates vastly different experiences for white and black residents in this town of 6,100, even amid shared economic pitfalls, a shared fondness for small-town familiarity, and a shared school system. The poll finds that divide reflected across the rural South.

Economics play a big role in rural America's racial divide. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 1 in 4 rural black Americans lives in poverty; for whites, it's just more than 1 in 10. Small towns and farming communities that residents describe as "close-knit" can be starkly split.

"In order for an African-American to get an opportunity, someone has to give them an opportunity," said Yulanda Haddix, 54, who recently moved from Philadelphia back to Starkville, Miss., where she was raised. "We don't get jobs based on credentials alone, not in Mississippi."

In St. Martinville, an old plantation town set amid the sugar cane fields and bayous of southern Louisiana, the disparity is palpable.

The town is 63 percent black and about 35 percent white, and more than 1 in 5 households rely on food stamps, according to census data. But the poverty rate among black residents is more than double what it is among whites. And while many of the white residents said in interviews that they view poverty as deriving from an unwillingness to work, many of the black residents said the area's declining economy made them feel as if the deck was irreversibly stacked against them.

"Our town used to be lively. There used to be places to work, and now it's dying," said Franca Francis, 52, who makes $7 an hour working at a daycare center and runs a carryout restaurant at night. "Now you have to have two jobs to make a living."

It's been years since the local Fruit of the Loom factory and two of the nearby sugar mills shut down; the Walmart folded up and left. Only a few of the town's smaller businesses remain, including the rickety trailer where Francis sells hot links po' boys.

Although its wide French-style balconies and Cajun culture once attracted a stream of tourists, St. Martinville is perhaps best known in history as the place where a black teenager, Willie Francis, survived an attempted execution in the electric chair in 1946. Francis had been convicted by an all-white jury for murdering a white man based on a confession given without a lawyer present. An appeal of his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where a defense attorney argued that subjecting a prisoner to multiple execution attempts constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The defense lost, and Francis later was executed.

Local legend says that St. Martinville is cursed as the result of its history of racial injustice. In 1891 - before the failed execution of Willie Francis - the town saw another failed execution when the noose fashioned for Louis Michel, a black political activist, turned out to be too long. Michel, who had been convicted of two murders but said he was innocent, survived long enough to utter a curse before he was hanged a second time.

"Until justice is done, the town will not prosper," he said, according to an account of the story in the Daily Iberian, a newspaper based in nearby New Iberia. "Grass will grow in the streets, and nothing will thrive."

The racial power dynamic that his case symbolized lives on, many say.

Ku Klux Klan membership has declined across the country, but it maintains an active recruiting wing in St. Martinville, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Birmingham-based nonprofit organization that tracks hate groups. And parish schools have been the subject of a decades-long desegregation lawsuit.

"The black prom is the one the school hosts, but the whites have their own," Verret said.

The nationwide Post-Kaiser poll finds 66 percent of rural white residents saying their local schools are excellent or good, compared with 50 percent of rural black residents.

When it comes to views on race, white rural Americans diverge significantly from the rest of the country. In the Post-Kaiser poll, white rural Americans are one of few demographic groups more likely to say whites "losing out due to preferences for blacks and Hispanics" is a bigger problem than vice versa, 39 to 30 percent. Among rural whites in the South, 45 percent say whites losing out is the bigger problem.

White Americans' attitudes on this question are tightly connected to partisanship. In rural areas, a 55 percent majority of white Democrats say blacks and Hispanics losing out is the bigger problem, compared with 14 percent of white Republicans. The divide is similar among urban and suburban whites: 61 percent of Democrats say racial minorities losing out is a bigger concern, compared with 20 percent of Republicans.

To the public, St. Martinville authorities tout progress on the issue of race. Twelve years ago, the town elected its first black mayor: Thomas Nelson, now 80. But some black residents said Nelson, whose light skin and straight hair make his race visually ambiguous, has helped perpetuate racial divisions in the interest of capturing the white vote.

The most recent source of tension came last year, when St. Martinville officials shut down the town's decades-old annual Mardi Gras parade — a move viewed negatively by many black residents and positively by many whites.

The parade participants were mostly black, as were the out-of-town fans the celebration drew, and it was growing.

Quinn felt Nelson's decision to shut down the parade pandered to white voters: "He promised the whites he was going to shut the n----- parade down if they voted for him."

But Nelson said the decision was about safety.

"The sheriff couldn't give us enough deputies," he said. "He couldn't afford to participate."

This Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll was conducted April 13-May 1 with a random national sample of 1,686 U.S. adults contacted on landline and cellphones with an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The sample of 1,070 rural Americans has an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 points. The error margin is 4.5 points for the sample of 759 rural whites, and 12 points for the sample of 115 rural blacks.

The Washington Post's Scott Clement contributed to this report.

 

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