Ferguson Is Mostly Black. Why Is Its Government So White?

A blog about business and economics.
Aug. 14 2014 3:15 PM

Ferguson Is Mostly Black. Why Is Its Government So White?

453572010-police-chief-thomas-jackson-fields-questions-related-to
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ferguson, Missouri, is a majority-black city governed mostly by whites. The mayor is white. The police chief is white. The police force is 94 percent white. Only one of its six city council members is black. These facts, as much as anything, have shaped the protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown. Ferguson, with a 67 percent black population, is a place where the largest community has little political voice.

Jordan Weissmann Jordan Weissmann

Jordan Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent.

Why is that? David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, has studied the dynamics of race and elections in St. Louis proper. He says that the pattern in Ferguson is common throughout the city’s inner-ring suburbs, where blacks have gradually replaced whites in recent decades.

Advertisement

The issue boils down to who votes. Ferguson is roughly two-thirds black, but compared with the city’s whites, the community is younger, poorer (the city has a 22 percent poverty rate overall), and, as the New York Times recently wrote, somewhat transient, prone to moving “from apartment to apartment.” All of these factors make black residents less likely to go to the polls, especially in low-turnout municipal elections. And so whites dominate politically. “The entire mobilization side of it is what accounts for the difference,” Kimball said.

To illustrate the point, Kimball told me about a recent school board election in which the city’s racial fissures came to the fore. In 2013, Art McCoy, the young and promising school district superintendent, was suspended by the board without explanation. McCoy, who later resigned, was black, as were three-quarters of the district’s students. Six of the school board’s members were white, while the other was Hispanic. Local outrage grew quickly.

“It’s a white school board and then you have this black superintendent, who so many people are impressed with,” Esther Haywood, president of the St. Louis County branch of the NAACP, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “Why are they trying to get rid of this black superintendent? We don’t know.”

In the wake of the controversy, three black candidates chose to run for the school board; despite the anger over McCoy’s ouster, only one managed to win a seat.

“I think the school board election is illustrative, because all the elements are there," Kimball said. "You’d think, OK, this is going to motivate the African American community. We’re going to see some changes. It’s kind of depressing from the standpoint of democracy serving all the constituents in the community.” In other words, democracy doesn’t always serve the poor.

Jordan Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 18 2014 6:00 AM All Shook Up My 11-year-old has been exploring herself with my “back massager.” Should I stop her?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 7:23 PM MIT Researchers Are Using Smartphones to Interact With Other Screens
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.