Policies enacted by federal, state, and local governments to create racially segregated metropolises are at the root of the events that occurred since August in Ferguson, Missouri, a new Economic Policy Institute report finds. In The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles, EPI Research Associate Richard Rothstein tracks the history of residential segregation in St. Louis and Ferguson. He shows how government actions such as racially explicit zoning, public housing segregation, and federal requirements for white-only suburbs systematically segregated African Americans, and laid the groundwork for Michael Brown’s death and the resulting protests and racial tension. The report notes that these policies were not unique to Ferguson and St. Louis, but national in application.
“A century of explicitly segregationist public policy created our racially divided metropolitan landscape, and this history is wholly inseparable from the recent tragedies we’ve seen such as the one in Ferguson,” said Rothstein. “The conventional media narrative underestimates the major role of public policy, and instead attributes racial segregation to private prejudice and suburbanites’ desire for homogenous middle-class environments.”
Rothstein explains that while private prejudice and suburbanites’ desire for homogenous middle-class environments contributed to segregation in St. Louis and other metropolitan areas, public policy was much more influential. These policies turned black neighborhoods into overcrowded slums. As a result, white homeowners then fled when African Americans moved nearby, not unreasonably fearing that their new neighbors would bring slum conditions with them.
In addition to zoning rules that classified white neighborhoods as residential and black neighborhoods as commercial or industrial; segregated public housing projects that replaced integrated low-income areas; and suburban racial homogeneity enforced by the Federal Housing Administration; other governmental policies employed in Ferguson and St. Louis include 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.
“We cannot begin to remedy the deeper obstacles that instigated the tragedy in Ferguson without understanding how Ferguson became Ferguson,” said Rothstein. “If we want to move forward, we must address the century of public policy that created our segregated metropolises.”
Practical programs and regulatory strategies that can be implemented to encourage integration include prohibiting landlords from refusing to accept tenants whose rent is subsidized—a few states and municipalities currently do prohibit such refusal, but most do not—and requiring every community to permit development of housing to accommodate a “fair share” of its region’s low- and moderate-income and minority populations.