The roots of racism and rebellion in Ferguson
"IT IS hard to deny just how predictable they are when they finally happen." That was the conclusion of Merlin Chowkwanyun, a scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in a Washington Post op-ed article comparing the eruption of protest and unrest in Ferguson, Mo. with so many similar upheavals in other cities since the 1960s.
The whole world knows of Ferguson after the murder of Mike Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, by a white police officer who initially confronted him over walking in the middle of the street.
The crime was heinous, but police killings of unarmed Black men are all too common in the U.S.--they take place once every 28 hours, according to a report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. But what's unique about Ferguson is the continuing mobilization to demand justice for Mike Brown, centered among the African American residents of the St. Louis suburb.
No one would have guessed that Ferguson would be the site of perhaps the most sustained rebellion against police violence in at least two decades. But at the same time, one statistic after another has emerged in the past week and a half to show exactly how predictable that uprising was.
THE CITY of Ferguson, just north of St. Louis, has a population that was, as of the 2010 Census, 67.4 percent Black and 29.3 percent white. Yet whites account for five of Ferguson's six city council members, and six of seven school board members (the seventh member is a Latino). Out of 53 officers in the Ferguson police department, there are three African Americans.
The white Mayor James Knowles has a delusional attitude toward race in his city. "We've never seen this kind of...frustration, this kind of tension between the races," he claimed. "I know we've always gotten along."
How can a shrinking minority of whites continue to dominate the political power structure in Ferguson? One answer: In the 2013 municipal election, just 11.7 percent of Ferguson's voting-eligible residents cast a ballot. The percentage was far lower for African Americans--some 17 percent of eligible white voters participated, compared to 6 percent of eligible Black voters. As a result, according to a Washington Post analysis, whites were actually a larger part of the electorate than Blacks, despite being a much smaller minority in the population.
Liberal media outlets attributed this disparity to the timing of elections, which take place in mid-April. This is certainly a factor, but there are more important reasons. The people I talked to in Ferguson feel they have little political stake in participating in municipal elections. For one thing, because of the governing structures in the St. Louis area, change would have to happen at the countywide level to be meaningful, which would require an electoral movement crossing over the boundaries of many small municipalities.
And there is a deeper disillusionment among African Americans, says Leslie Broadnax, a native of Ferguson who challenged the incumbent St. Louis County prosecutor in the last election and lost. "I think there is a huge distrust in the system," said Broadnax. "Many Blacks think: Well it's not going to matter anyway, so my one vote doesn't count."
Here is another statistic that helps capture the economic devastation which, as it does everywhere, hits African Americans disproportionately hard: According to a Reuters report, "Traffic fines are the St. Louis suburb's second-largest source of revenue and just about the only one that is growing appreciably. Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue and at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime."
Add to that information the fact that Blacks accounted for 86 percent of traffic stops initiated by Ferguson cops, and it makes you wonder if Officer Darren Wilson had a financial motive in mind when he got out of his patrol car to confront 18-year-old Mike Brown on August 9.
Whatever the case, if you put all these facts and figures together, it's clear that Ferguson's long history, bound up with racism and social oppression, helped set the stage for both the murder of Mike Brown--and the powerful upsurge of protest against it ever since.
IN MANY ways, Ferguson's history embodies W.E.B. DuBois's famous assertion that "the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line." It's clear from all the statistics about Ferguson today that racism structures daily life for the city's African American population--but it's also clear this is also nothing new.
Ferguson's existence as a distinct city from nearby St. Louis has its roots in the failures of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the former states of the Confederacy. The city and county of St. Louis separated their legal connection in 1877 over the issue of the under-representation of city dwellers in county politics--the same year that marked the end of Reconstruction and the federal government's attempt to "reconstruct" the political systems of the former slave states that had seceded to start the Civil War.
This split sharpened the historical divide between city and county--and as a racist backlash developed following the retreat of Reconstruction, many Black Southerners fled to the cities, including St. Louis. But even if the city offered some protection from the Klan, that hardly meant St. Louis was a beacon of racial progress. The city, in collusion with the county, embarked on a project of segregation that would remain legal for nearly a century.
The state of Missouri passed a law requiring that: "Separate free schools shall be established for the education of children of African descent; and it shall be unlawful for any colored child to attend any white school, or any white child to attend a colored school." Another law declared: "All marriages between...white persons and negroes or white persons and Mongolians...are prohibited and declared absolutely void...No person having one-eighth part or more of negro blood shall be permitted to marry any white person."
Housing was a primary target of the Jim Crow system. Like many of the 91 municipalities surrounding the city of St. Louis, Ferguson was closed off to Black residents by racist housing covenants. Black Missouri residents remained overwhelmingly concentrated in the city while racist terror continued across the countryside.
Within the city, Black workers endured unequal pay, hiring discrimination and the constant degradation that all African Americans faced under Jim Crow. The inability to live outside the city limits restricted their access to better schools, public services, schools and employment. Black neighborhoods were characterized by substandard housing, overcrowding and poor sanitation.
Housing rights became a major focus of civil rights struggle in St. Louis. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelley v. Kraemer, which declared that state enforcement of racially restrictive housing covenants was unconstitutional, revolved around a St. Louis case. Even though the 6-0 decision of the justices was handed down in 1948, it took two more decades of struggle to finally tear down the housing covenants.
BY THE 1970s, activists had secured the removal of the covenants, and Black residents of the city of St. Louis were able to move out into the municipalities, including Ferguson. In 1980, the population of Ferguson was still 85 percent white and 14 percent Black. Today, those numbers are nearly reversed.
African Americans had scored a major victory in removing the housing covenants, but as the city's Black population moved out into the suburbs, many whites fled, leaving not only towns like Ferguson, but even the state itself, moving across the river to Illinois--or into concentrated pockets of white wealth, such as nearby Country Life Acres, a tiny municipality that is 96 percent white, with a median household income of $200,000. By comparison, Ferguson's median annual household income of $37,500.
Today, the St. Louis metro area remains one of the most segregated in the country. That divide extends to unemployment, which is 20 percentage points higher for Blacks than the 6.2 percent jobless rate for whites in white unemployment in the area around Ferguson.
Housing discrimination has continued despite the outlawing of legalized discrimination through the housing covenants. As Bryce Covert wrote for Think Progress:
Racial housing segregation hasn't just affected community makeups, but their economics. Given that Blacks have been shut out of buying homes, a huge source of wealth, and discriminatory practices depressed the values of those who did manage to buy houses, it's no surprise that there continues to be a huge racial wealth gap. The average Black household has $75,040 in wealth stored in its home, while the average white one has $217,150. Overall, the gap in wealth between white households and Black ones was $84,960 in 2011. A similar gap is apparent in Ferguson, where the median household income is about $37,500 but in St. Louis County as a whole it's $58,500.
Thus, persistent, pervasive, structural racism extends far beyond policing. The existence of legally separate but still closely integrated townships has had a clear and inevitable impact. St. Louis County's mainly Black municipalities have high poverty rates rooted in decades of underinvestment, employment discrimination and more.
In Ferguson itself, the poverty rate of 22 percent, a full 10 percentage points higher than the county average (and 22 percentage points higher than the 96 percent white municipality with the $200,000 median income).
The county structure of many small municipalities over a large metro area exacerbates the effect of poverty. In the poorer ones, schools are underfunded. Resources for public services are scarce compared to the demand. The municipalities compete in a race to the bottom to provide tax incentives for businesses to locate in their town or city--which gives the chain stores lining the streets of Ferguson a subsidy on the backs of poor residents.
The structure of St. Louis County has, in effect, helped lock Black residents without the means to leave the area into highly segregated communities, with disproportionate rates of poverty by any measure--whether the comparison is to the county, the state or the nation.
Emerson Electric, Boeing and Express Scripts all employ large numbers of people in the Ferguson area, but thanks to the fragmented municipalities, these corporate giants not only receive massive tax breaks, but they avoid paying anything into the tax bases that fund the public schools and services their workers rely on.
Ferguson exemplifies the way that segregation, police violence and economic inequality are tightly woven together.
TWENTY YEARS of disinvestment and impoverishment as Ferguson became a majority Black city have taken a visible toll.
As soon as you pull off the Interstate into town, there is a strip mall that stands completely dark. Payday loan companies have set up shop on almost every corner. The notice for a free adult clinic on Saturday hangs from the sign of a business that has been closed for a while.
The ditches that line the streets to help alleviate flooding from the Mississippi River were carefully built and reinforced with concrete a long time ago, but they're overgrown with brush thick enough to block adequate drainage--even though the town is just minutes from the riverbanks.
But this is not all there is to know about Ferguson.
The media reports that blame Mike Brown for his own murder, with their focus on a surveillance video released by police that allegedly shows Brown in a confrontation with a store employee, also blame protesters for the discord in their community. But nothing could be further from the truth. The police killed Mike Brown, and they are also trying to destroy the community solidarity built up over the past week and a half.
If you go to Ferguson, stop at the QuikTrip, and you'll see an inspiring sense of trust and community--something that reminded activists of the occupation of the Wisconsin state Capitol in 2011, among other historic struggles.
The people of Ferguson are proud of their community. The immaculate lawns that most residents keep, many with carefully laid stone gardens and neatly trimmed shrubbery, line roads in desperate need of repair. When we meet Kristian Blackmon, a lifetime Ferguson resident who has been protesting each day since Mike Brown was killed, the pride in her voice is clear when she declares to each person she meets that she is Ferguson "born and raised."
The history of Ferguson--up to and including the killing of Mike Brown and the rebellion we have witnessed over the last week and a half--has been profoundly shaped by racism and inequality that was embedded in this place from its founding.
As a result, the residents of Ferguson, who have come together to oppose the murder of an unarmed 18-year-old and the reign of police terror in their community, are also challenging other forms of racism and inequality that threaten their lives.
Standing together with them, we will fight to stop the racist killer cops--and know that we're also fighting against the racism built into the very foundation of Ferguson and every other city in this country.