What Now? Three Ways to Tackle Structural Injustice

Co-authored by Clarissa Hayward, PhD, associate professor of political science at Washington University; Lynn Oldham, president of the Board of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE); and Laura Rosenbury, JD, professor of law at Washington University.

In the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the single most important question St. Louis faces is: “What now?”

How will we respond to this conflict that has gripped our city for the past three months? How will we change the longstanding racial and economic inequalities that fueled it? What will we do differently, going forward?

A satisfactory answer to these questions must begin by acknowledging that injustice in St. Louis is not just about Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. It is not just about the choices and the decisions that individual St. Louisans make. It’s also about the structures — the laws, the social, political, and economic institutions, the urban and suburban spaces — that inform and shape those choices.

Real change must be structural change. Specifically, St. Louis needs to tackle structural injustice head-on with institutional reforms that acknowledge our social and economic interdependence. Many in our community are already working to create more jobs, to reform our municipal court system, and to reconsider our approaches to policing, among other initiatives. All of this work is important. Yet we believe now is the time to be even bolder.

Throughout the region, concerned citizens are asking how St. Louis might be transformed with sufficient money, expertise and commitment. This year, the gross metropolitan product of the St. Louis region is $147.1 billion. We propose investing 1 percent of our region’s wealth to achieve three game-changing goals.

First, we must create what some call a “solidarity economy.” New investments in St. Louis will transform its economic landscape only if properly directed to those who have been consistently left at the bottom. We should invest in small, black-owned businesses, worker cooperatives that offer child care and other community services, mutual aid societies, barter clubs, and other groups developing alternative currencies. We should ensure that all members of our community have a guaranteed income that enables them to meet their basic needs.

Second, we must provide an excellent education for all students in the region. A metropolitan region divided into different school districts with radically different resources fails to realize this goal. Real equality of educational opportunity requires equal and excellent primary and secondary schooling. It requires well-trained and well-paid local teachers. It also requires innovative trade schools, community literacy programs, and more generally the lifelong learning that is vital to our community’s flourishing. We should use what is arguably one of St. Louis’ greatest resources — its wealth of vacant land and affordable housing — to attract excellent teachers on an unprecedented scale.

Finally, we must create new conceptions of community by engaging in regional — rather than local — land use planning. Local zoning encourages the very wealthiest municipalities to “zone out” those who cannot afford the hefty price of admission. It allows the Ladues and the Frontenacs of our region to strongly limit multifamily housing, for example, or to zone for large lots and large, detached single-family houses. Because of our long history of racial inequality, it therefore allows them to “zone out” most black and brown St. Louisans. We must mandate inclusionary zoning, instead, so that all St. Louis municipalities help meet the needs of low- and moderate-income people.

Should we change our policing practices? Absolutely. Should our officers be trained to reduce implicit bias? They should. Should they wear body cameras to disincentivize the abuse of their power? The answer is a resounding yes.

But such changes, by themselves, are inadequate. Even the most ethical individual choices and the wisest individual decisions will be insufficient to prevent another Ferguson. What we need — what we need now — is structural change that promotes racial and economic justice.

Read article in St. Louis Post-Dispatch