The crisis in Ferguson Missouri hits home for me because St. Louis is my home. The tragic death of Mike Brown has resonated throughout the nation and it has become a moment for deep reflection. To better understand the societal disconnect and racial strife in Ferguson, the history of the region and why it has become so politically shattered must be examined.
“The Great Divorce”
I live in a city about 10 miles west of Ferguson, one of 90 tiny-to-smallish municipalities that make up St. Louis County. Home to a million people, St. Louis County is often considered the “economic engine” of Missouri providing 34% of state income tax revenue, 20% of the state’s jobs, and the larger St. Louis region covering 51% of federal income tax paid in Missouri. The county’s racial makeup is about 70% white and 23% African-American with varying concentrations and clusters spread out among the 90 different municipalities, with 35 of those each having a population of 2000 or less.
The City of St. Louis, home to 320,000, is famous for not being included in the county because of “The Great Divorce”—a decision made in 1876 by city residents to politically separate from the county. At the time, the county was sparsely populated farmland. The city folk didn’t want to pay for farmers out in the hinterland, and being only a decade after the Civil War, significant cultural animosities still existed between abolitionist St. Louisans, and secessionist, rural Missourians. For the burgeoning Mississippi port city it seemed like a good choice and the resultant 61 square mile jurisdiction appeared more than ample for any future expansion. However, “The Great Divorce” turned out to be a horrible policy and a prescription for decline. Extricating the city from the county has only fractured the region; it has hampered growth and development, and created a metropolitan area that stands as one of the most segregated in America. Attempts have been made for consolidation, for reunification, but all have failed.
As myriad St. Louis County municipalities began incorporating in the late 1800s and early 1900s, population continued to grow in both the city and county, but with governance separate and independent, the city and county were often at odds with one another. This parochial attitude promoted a “circle the wagons” mentality and was not only confined to city/county dynamics, but also pervaded the many competing municipalities emerging in St. Louis County, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes remarked, “[St. Louis] is sort of like a municipal Game of Thrones.”
One of the key umbilicals attaching county residents to the city was severed during the “Great American Streetcar scandal” which, beginning in the 1930s, had General Motors forming artificial holding companies with investors such as Standard Oil (gas) and Firestone (tires) systematically purchasing and dismantling electric mass transportation in 45 cities including St. Louis. Initiatives like this only further contributed to urban decay. Walls of separation were being built, and again, were only echoed by competing parochial interests between county municipal fiefdoms.
Starting in the 1950s and 60s, St. Louis has had one of the most extreme cases of “white flight” in the nation with a massive migration into surrounding areas. Urban decay has also driven residents away. City population peaked in 1950 with 850,000, but by 1970, it dropped precipitously to 620,000, with the county’s population ballooning at 950,000. The last 40 years has seen the exodus continue. As of the 2010 census, the city population dropped to its lowest point since the 19th century (320,000) and the county’s population dropped for the first time since its inception. This has summoned new calls for political consolidation which would save an estimated $10-40M per year by eliminating waste, in addition to presenting a more holistic case for economic development by attracting new businesses and jobs to the area.
Ferguson, as an inner core city in St. Louis County, has had a particularly pronounced case of “white flight” which has amplified racial inequities in the local government. In 1980, 85 percent of Ferguson was white and 14 percent black—30 years later it is 29 percent white and 69 percent black. And although federal and state legislators covering the Ferguson area are African-American (U.S. House Rep. William Lacy Clay, State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, and State Reps Sharon Pace, Courtney Allen Curtis, and Rochelle Walton Gray), the local municipal leaders are almost all white—the mayor, police chief, five of six City Council seats, and six of seven school board members. This racial imbalance promotes the feeling of “blacks being under occupation,” as Rev. Jesse Jackson intoned yesterday on CNN. These dynamics of racial and economic segregation—coupled with detached and disconnected local representation—are prevalent in many of America’s urban areas, Rust Belt cities in particular. And this environment has all contributed to the civil strife surrounding the death of Mike Brown. Ferguson rage is not only about a police shooting—it’s about a segment of our population that feels left behind and hopeless. On a deeper level, it’s about white privilege and echoes from the Civil War.
“Have, Hope, Help, Heal”
On August 18th, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered the National Guard to Ferguson to prevent further destruction of property and to protect the police staging area. It's important to note the National Guard has not been deployed to quell civil unrest in the region since at least World War II. For those in the St. Louis Metropolitan area, Ferguson is a wake-up call and should inspire a profound moment of introspection. The community is fractured and bleeding and the world’s eyes are on St. Louis—we need to heal and to come together. A dear friend of mine, artist Seth Kaufman, in the wake of the Rodney King riots in LA, crafted a sublime statement for a community wracked with shock and loss: “Have Hope Help Heal.” Those four words were emblazoned on a prominent billboard in the middle of Sunset Blvd—“Have Hope Help Heal.” And to me, they are absolutely instructive—urging us to press in and bring healing, understanding, and compassion for those suffering from a sense of hopeless and disenfranchised injustice. Ferguson is the kind of pivotal event that insinuates that change is not only possible, but necessary.
How can we have hope and help heal?
There are tracts within our community that are destitute and in many ways this is the result of decisions made in the aftermath of the Civil War. We should reject those past mistakes and work to correct them. A “circle the wagons” mentality no longer serves us. The fractured cityscape, with municipal fiefdoms littering the county, are all aspects of past wounds, injustices, and are born from an obsolete, shortsighted worldview. Connecting our communities and breaking down the old walls of separation would help, but it’s a difficult political task to accomplish.
Former Missouri State Senator Jeff Smith, in an op-ed for the New York Times stated:
“In shrinking cities, politics is often a nasty, zero-sum game. But consolidation could create economies of scale, increase borrowing capacity to expand economic opportunity, reduce economic pressures that inflame racial tension…”
We should stop thinking about me, me, me, and start thinking about how we, as a community, can help those in need, and in so doing elevate the collective prospects for our city—if the City of St. Louis is allowed to further descend economically, we will all sink, because we are all passengers on the same boat. On the other hand, should we examine our hearts and decide that it’s better to come together as a result of this crisis—rather than building more walls of separation—we could surmount this challenge and begin to build the kind of world class city St. Louis could be and should be. Likewise, political consolidation and accommodation between neighboring municipalities in the county could create a framework where increased equity and opportunity would thrive. In a piece last February from the Post-Dispatch editorial board, they state, “Unification, we believe, can put a stopper in the slow drain of our region's economic power,” and that, “unification is about investing our entire region in the proposition that a greater St. Louis is possible only if its core regains vitality.”
What Will You Do While the World Watches Ferguson 24/7?
We will all be processing Ferguson for many, many months with HLN, CNN, FOX, MSNBC and 24-hour news coverage reminiscent of the media frenzy surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin or the O.J. Simpson trial. The justice pursued will largely be a function of perception, with a polarized narrative between two accounts of the shooting that are in dispute. Like millions of people, Mike Brown’s father said he doesn’t believe the system has worked so far, but that “eventually, justice will prevail.” As I marched in Ferguson on Saturday, one week following the tragic shooting, the words I heard among protesters were bouncing around in my head: “keep hope alive” “we are all equal” “I am somebody”—phrases given to the crowd by Rev. Jesse Jackson in call and answer.
A sign held by one protester had a quote from author Cornell West: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
But, to me, justice in the big picture would be the nation receiving a “heads-up” from the Ferguson moment to prevent unnecessary killings; justice would be law enforcement professionals receiving needed anti-bias training; justice would be a new era of political engagement to reinvigorate our democracy; justice would be the St. Louis region coming together for healing, and galvanizing as a result of this tragedy; justice—real justice—would be confining obsolete policies and worldviews born of fear of “the other” to the dustbin of history to allow our children a greater inheritance and a legacy to be proud of. Ferguson, to me, shows us this possibility, that to overcome the flames threatening to burn down our house, we can, and must come together as a region, as a nation, as a people.
For More Information:
Center for Racial Harmony
FOCUS St. Louis