What Led Us to the Troubles in Ferguson?
I’ve spent several years studying the evolution of residential segregation nationwide, motivated in part by convictions that the black-white achievement gap cannot be closed while low-income black children are isolated in segregated schools, that schools cannot be integrated unless neighborhoods are integrated, and that neighborhoods cannot be integrated unless we remedy the public policies that have created and support neighborhood segregation.
When Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in August, I suspected that federal, state and local policy had purposefully segregated St. Louis County, because this had occurred in so many other metropolises. After looking into the history of Ferguson, St. Louis, and the city’s other suburbs, I confirmed these were no different. In The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles, the Economic Policy Institute has now published a report documenting the basis for this conclusion, and The American Prospect has published a summary in an article in the current issue.
Since a Ferguson policeman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, we’ve paid considerable attention to that town. If we’ve not been looking closely at our evolving demographic patterns, we were surprised to see ghetto conditions we had come to associate with inner cities now duplicated in almost every respect in a formerly white suburban community: racially segregated neighborhoods with high poverty and unemployment, poor student achievement in overwhelmingly black schools, oppressive policing, abandoned homes, and community powerlessness.
Media accounts of how Ferguson became Ferguson have typically explained that when African Americans moved to this suburb (and others like it), “white flight” followed, abandoning the town to African Americans who were trying to escape poor schools in the city. The conventional explanation adds that African Americans moved to a few places like Ferguson, not the suburbs generally, because prejudiced realtors steered black homebuyers away from other white suburbs. And in any event, those other suburbs were able to preserve their middle- class environments by enacting zoning rules that required only expensive single family homes.
No doubt, private prejudice and suburbanites’ desire for homogenous middle-class environments contributed to segregation in St. Louis and other metropolitan areas. But these explanations are too partial, and too conveniently excuse public policy from responsibility. A more powerful cause of metropolitan segregation in St. Louis and nationwide has been the explicit intents of federal, state, and local governments to create racially segregated metropolises.
Many of these explicitly segregationist governmental actions ended in the late 20th century but continue to determine today’s racial segregation patterns; ongoing segregation is not the unintended by-product of race-neutral policies. In St. Louis these actions included zoning rules that classified white neighborhoods as residential and black neighborhoods as commercial or industrial; segregated public housing projects to replace integrated low-income areas; federal subsidies for suburban development conditioned on African American exclusion; federal and local requirements for and enforcement of property deeds and neighborhood agreements that prohibited re-sale of white-owned property to or occupancy by African Americans; tax favoritism for private institutions that enforced segregation; municipal boundary lines designed to separate black neighborhoods from white ones and to deny necessary services to the former; real estate, insurance, and banking regulators who tolerated and sometimes required racial segregation; and urban renewal plans whose purpose was to shift black populations from central cities like St. Louis to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson.
Governmental actions in support of a segregated labor market supplemented these racial housing policies and prevented most African Americans from acquiring the economic strength to move to middle class communities, even if they had been permitted to do so.
White flight certainly existed, and racial prejudice was certainly behind it, but not racial prejudice alone. Government turned black neighborhoods into overcrowded slums and then white families came to associate African Americans with slum characteristics. White homeowners then fled when African Americans moved nearby, fearing their new neighbors would bring slum conditions with them.
That government, not mere private prejudice, was responsible for segregating greater St. Louis was once conventional informed opinion. A federal appeals court declared 40 years ago that “segregated housing in the St. Louis metropolitan area was … in large measure the result of deliberate racial discrimination in the housing market by the real estate industry and by agencies of the federal, state, and local governments.” Similar observations accurately describe every other large metropolitan area. This history, however, has now largely been forgotten.
When we blame private prejudice and snobbishness for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash our own history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community. The federal government’s response to the Ferguson “Troubles” has been to treat the town as an isolated embarrassment, not a reflection of the nation in which it is embedded. The Department of Justice is investigating the killing of teenager Michael Brown and the practices of the Ferguson police department, but aside from the president’s concern that perhaps we have militarized all police forces too much, no broader inferences from the August events are being drawn.
The conditions that created Ferguson cannot be addressed without remedying a century of public policy that segregated our metropolitan landscape. Remedies are unlikely if we fail to recognize these policies and how their effects have endured.