Anger over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, at the hands of a local police officer has transformed Ferguson, Missouri from an anonymous Midwestern suburb into the focal point for America’s race relations, all within the span of a week. The incident, along with retaliatory protests-turned-riots, landed the small St. Louis municipality on the front page of The New York Times several times since its occurrence, and garnered the attention of notable public figures from President Obama to Reverend Al Sharpton. But while Ferguson only recently stepped into the national media spotlight, the racial conflict which came to a head with Michael Brown’s death has been brewing in St. Louis for much longer than that.
The geographic fragmentation experienced in present day St. Louis dates back to the 19th century, when the City of St. Louis separated from St. Louis County. As a result of this split, small communities were established on the outskirts of the pre-established city. Many formed to exclude black residents or to capture a wealthier tax base. Consequently, the 90 separate municipalities which constitute St. Louis County today vary widely in income and racial distribution. Although this stratification hinders the city’s economic growth, St. Louis City and St. Louis County have been unable to broker a merger, largely due to racial tensions in the area.
In addition to its disjointed cartography, St. Louis has a long history of systematic racial segregation. While the city’s black population hovered at about only six percent for decades after the Civil War, the Great Migration in the early 20th century brought an influx of southern blacks moving north in search of work. As University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon aptly explains through statistical data on his website, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City, this event sparked a series of efforts by white St. Louisans to push black residents out of their neighborhoods.
In 1916, in an attempt to stymie this migration pattern, St. Louis passed a zoning law prohibiting any black person from moving into a neighborhood that was already 75 percent white. However, the Supreme Court nullified this ordinance only one year later, when it struck down a similar Louisville law. Undeterred, white homeowners turned to restrictive racial covenants to keep blacks out, gathering neighborhood agreements to bar the sale of local homes to black families. Under the covenant system, real estate agents risked forfeiting their licenses if they facilitated a transaction that transgressed this agreement.
But it was not just local practices that positioned black St. Louisans at a disadvantage in the housing market. In 1933, the New Deal created the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a federal agency tasked with rating neighborhoods across the country by financial risk. Based on the assumption that black residents decreased property value and security, urban black neighborhoods consistently received the lowest ratings of “C” or “D,” while white suburban neighborhoods commonly earned “A” or “B” ratings. In accordance with these ratings, banks could deny issuing loans and mortgages to black residents. This policy, known as redlining, further restricted the access of black people to certain neighborhoods.
Nonetheless, the Supreme Court ruled against restrictive covenants in 1946, and the practice of redlining became illegal in the 1970s. As new laws began to chip away at the barriers which white residents had built over decades of segregation, whites started to retreat farther into the suburbs. Blacks would follow for the amenities these white suburban communities offered, and whites in turn would continue their migration farther out from the city center in order to escape their black neighbors.
Not coincidentally, Ferguson was on this path of “white flight.” Originally a mostly white suburb when it was established in 1894, the town’s current population of 21,000 is now over 2/3 black. Much of the trouble in Ferguson today derives from the speed at which this demographic shift occurred: in two decades, the city went from about 20 percent black to 2/3 black. Due to the swiftness of this transition, the municipality’s power structure has yet to reflect its new demographics. The town’s mayor, five of its six City Council members, and 50 of its 53 police officers are white.
Given this racial disconnect between those who live in Ferguson and those who govern it, Ferguson’s arrest statistics before the shooting of Michael Brown may be unsurprising. According to 2013 government racial profiling data, black residents of Ferguson are 37 percent more likely to be stopped by police than white residents. Moreover, of the 521 people arrested in Ferguson in 2013, 483 of them were black.
All of this is to say that Michael Brown’s death and the resulting situation in Ferguson is not an anomaly to be brushed aside. Rather, it is the product of the city’s long held issues of urban decay, geographic fragmentation, and racial segregation. What may be even more concerning is that, of all the areas in St. Louis, Ferguson is not the most predictable setting for unrest. The town is a working-class suburb which benefits from nearby big-name employers including Fortune 500 companies Express Scripts and Emerson Electric. And while black people are 37 percent more likely to be pulled over than white people in Ferguson, the statewide average is much higher at 59 percent, Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told The New York Times. Moreover, while Ferguson’s median household income is about $37,000, this is significantly higher than the average $18,000 north of Delmar Boulevard, according to the BBC documentary, “The Delmar Divide.”
Thus, it is true that Ferguson was a town on the brink of explosion at the time of Michael Brown’s death. But the problems that created the situation in Ferguson today are not by any measure exclusive. Maybe Michael Brown’s death will finally call our attention to the deep-seated issues lying just beneath the surface of the city we live in.
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