Why the Fires in Ferguson Won’t End Soon

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Aug. 19 2014 6:42 PM

Why the Fires in Ferguson Won’t End Soon

The tensions have been building for a long time, and even justice for Michael Brown won’t change that.

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Given frustrated residents and a recalcitrant Ferguson Police Department—which has yet to release its autopsy report—it’s hard to know if calm is possible. Insofar that there’s new information, it’s from a private autopsy report, released on Sunday, which shows Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head. And on Monday, demonstrations took another turn for the worst, as police fired tear gas into crowds, and a handful of protesters returned fire with live rounds.

Ferguson, Missouri August 17, 2014.
Demonstrators put their hands up after protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 17, 2014.

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

But while calm is hard to predict, one thing is clear: The events in Ferguson—from the shooting to the police response and everything since—are a product of familiar forces and stem from a familiar history. Put another way, the area’s long-bottled racial tension has burst, and it’s difficult to know if it can be resolved, much less contained.

Like many American cities, St. Louis can’t be untangled from segregation. In 1916, it became one of the first places to formalize racial segregation by designating particular “Negro blocks” where blacks would be concentrated and legally forbidden from leaving. The Supreme Court struck the ordinance in 1917, but private real estate agents and other groups responded with informal means of enforcing segregation. In 1923, the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange created zones in the city’s black neighborhoods to limit the extent of black housing. Real estate agents could sell to black families inside the zones, but would lose their licenses if they sold homes outside the zones.

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In 1941—bolstered by federal housing discrimination—real estate agents combined these zones into a single district and adopted “racial covenants” that restricted or banned the sale of properties to black families outside of the district. As professor Colin Gordon of the University of Iowa wrote, “Both the City’s Real Estate Exchange and the Missouri Real Estate Commission routinely and openly interpreted sales to blacks in white areas as a form of professional misconduct,” and by the 1940s, “almost 380 covenants covered large and strategic swaths of the City’s residential property base.”

The G.I. Bill and the end of World War II sparked a massive move to the suburbs. Between 1950 and 1970, close to 60 percent of whites had moved to suburbs in the western parts of St. Louis County. Blacks —pushed by “urban renewal” and other policies—also moved, but restrictive covenants limited mobility to northern parts of the city and county.

As the area entered the 1980s, racial succession had taken hold, as blacks entered older, inner-ring suburbs and whites left for the far reaches of the county. Depopulation accelerated—the city of St. Louis lost more than a third of its residents—and the suburban “color line” had drifted to include most of the North County suburbs. “Ghetto spillover,” said one local, noted by Gordon, “now stretches almost all the way across the county in a northwesterly direction.” In 1990, Ferguson was 74 percent white and 25 percent black. Now, at 67 percent black and 29 percent white, it’s nearly reversed.

As of 2010, 42 years after Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, greater St. Louis was one of the most segregated areas in the United States. And segregation comes with a familiar set of problems. Middle-class neighborhoods—and thus middle-class services—are few and far between, with most wealth concentrated in the farther, whiter reaches of the county.

As the New America Foundation’s Dana Goldstein finds, the schools are in bad shape as well. Michael Brown attended Normandy High, where he was one of the 58 percent of students who graduated this year (compared with a statewide average of 80). In 2011, 98 percent of the 1,064 students at the school were black, and 74 percent were low-income. Most tellingly, 45 percent of Normandy students were suspended that year, and—given what we know about the area—there’s no question some were funneled into the criminal justice system.

With broad housing inequality and entrenched segregation, it shouldn’t be a shock to learn that banks targeted North County—and other predominantly black areas nationwide—with subprime loans. The result was a community hit hard by the 2008 recession. The unemployment rate for blacks there is three times as high as it is for whites, and among black men aged 16 to 24, the unemployment rate is a whopping 47 percent. This high inequality is exacerbated by intense sprawl, which separates low-income residents from potential jobs. Which is to say that the same patterns of housing segregation that impede black wealth in cities like Chicago and Detroit—which top the list of segregated cities—are also operative in St. Louis.

Detroit 2011
Buildings in an entire city block in what was once Detroit's prime business district sit largely abandoned in 2011.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

“We’re continuously economically depressed, chronically unemployed, voter participation is typically low, and on any measure of health and viability, we would be at the bottom in the most deplorable ways,” said Etefia Umana, who sits on the board of Better Family Life, a local nonprofit, and hopes the Michael Brown demonstrations lead to broader social action.

All of these ills are made worse by the absence of black political and civic representation in many of the area’s 90 independent municipalities. For example, as has been widely reported, Ferguson has just one black city council member and three black police officers out of a force of 55. The mayor is white, the school superintendent is white, and the police chief is white. The disparity is easy to understand. “North County is becoming more transient, and you have a lot of people who are moving in temporarily and moving right out,” said Wesley Bell, a local law professor and prosecutor who ran for a seat on the St. Louis County Council this year. “Therefore, they may not get registered, they may not get involved in local politics if they’re just moving through.”

Moreover, as New School professor (and former St. Louis politician) Jeff Smith explained for the New York Times, overwhelmingly white labor organizations and other groups run effective get-out-the-vote operations, which bring thousands of voters to low-turnout elections and ensure white dominance in local political bodies. It also helps that area municipal elections are held in the spring, on off years, a Progressive-era election reform that dramatically lowers turnout. In the 2012 presidential elections, turnout for Ferguson blacks was 54 percent. The next year, in municipal elections, turnout had dropped to 6 percent.

An overbearing police presence is a defining feature of life in Ferguson and the rest of North County. Last year in Ferguson, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches, and 93 percent of arrests involved blacks, despite the fact that police found more “contraband” stopping white residents than black ones. I spoke to several young men in Ferguson—all teenagers or in their early 20s—who said they were stopped on a weekly basis. At a makeshift Michael Brown memorial, I asked one 20-year-old how many times he’s stopped by police, “About 10 times a month,” he said.

Ferguson, Missouri August 19, 2014
Two boys stand over the makeshift memorial for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 19, 2014.

Photo by Joshua Lott/Reuters

Again, the forces in St. Louis are familiar. And when it comes to police, what we see in Ferguson is a microcosm of the long and contentious relationship of black Americans to law enforcement.

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