Over the last week hours a small suburb in St. Louis has become the dominant story in national news. Much of the focus of these stores has been on the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, or the protests that followed, or the looting that followed the protests, or the response of the police which has included the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. More than the words, the images of smoke bombs and high powered rifles being aimed at civilians has brought attention to a story that otherwise may have long since passed. It is hard to see what the story of Ferguson is really about through this cloud of smoke, but let us try for a moment. Here is a look at the broader picture of Ferguson, with five facts about the area that everyone should know from an author who has lived here for 14 years.
1. Feruson is part of St. Louis, and it isn't
In 1876 the city of St .Louis voted to secede from St. Louis County over festering dispute over tax revenues. As a result of laws passed by the state limiting the size of St. Louis proper the city itself is actually relatively small. What surrounds St. Louis proper is a number of small “suburbs” many of which are actually very urban in nature. Ferguson just happens to be one of those suburbs.
Ferguson, population 21,111 in 2013, is not legally part of St. Louis City, population 318,172. The town of Ferguson passes its own laws and, as is now known all too well, operates its own police force.
At the same time, the residents of Ferguson would consider themselves part of what is commonly called “greater St. Louis.” Like St. Louis City residents, Ferguson residents cheer for the St. Louis Cardinals, and they enjoy the favorite places of St. Louis City like the Forest Park and the City Museum. Greater St. Louis includes St. Louis proper and all the suburbs like Ferguson and has a population of 2,900,605.
Since the divorce in 1876 the City of St. Louis and St. Louis have tried to live amicably with each other as neighbors, but there is often disputes over issues like transportation infrastructure and schooling.
2. Greater St. Louis has an ugly racial history
St. Louis was the place of origin for the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, in which an African-American was declared a piece of property to avoid the obvious constitutional issues with the Fugitive Slave Act. Missouri officially sided with the Union during the Civil War, but many people owned slaves and confederate sympathizers existed in many parts of the state.
Following the Civil War Missouri followed the pattern of many southern states in making African-Americans second class citizens through voting right restrictions and strict segregation. In 1917 East St. Louis suffered one of the worst labor and race-related riots in American history when whites lashed out at the perceived threat of black people posed to their economic security.
Following the Civil Rights Era, Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education, and the passage of civil rights legislation St. Louis began to grapple, mostly unsuccessfully, with the racism that had been built up over more than a century.
De jure segregation was done away with in time, but de facto segregation took over with a fury. Whites fled the economically depressed areas of the city, or bought up black property and effectively kicked blacks out. The federal courts attempted to desegregate St. Louis schools by ordering bussing of black students to white school districts. White students were encouraged to attend predominantly black school districts through a magnet school structure. Desegregation ultimately just created more misunderstanding and distrust between the two racial groups, and eventually the bussing system was ended. Whites did not sufficiently attend the magnet schools and blacks were blamed for the problems in suburb schools. Governor Jay Nixon (D-MO), campaigned against desegregation when he ran for attorney general in Missouri.
3. What has resulted is a St. Louis that is weak, fractured, and still terribly segregated
If a person travels four miles south of Ferguson they will find themselves in Ladue, with high property values, a thriving school system, and a mostly white population. If one goes just a few miles east of Ferguson they will find themselves in Jennings, an area which even more economically depressed and has an even greater concentration of African-Americans.
Normandy, the school district where Michael Brown attended before he died, was declared a failing school district and taken over by the state. Last year students at Normandy were allowed to transfer to better schools, but this year a number of those districts have decided to no longer accept Normandy students and the state legislature is working on a a “solution” to keep Normandy students in their district. Some neighborhoods have resorted to closing off their streets with gates or concrete barriers in an attempt to keep the “bad part” of town out of their streets.
Because the city and country struggle to agree on many issues the town’s infrastructure is crumbling and the metro system is sub-par when compared to other cities of comparable size. The quality of schools and parks largely depends on the tax revenue of the locality where a person lives. Predictably, areas like Ferguson tend to constantly be struggling just to have enough funds for basic necessities like policing. He federal government, however, was kind enough to send excess military equipment to local police departments which has been prominently displayed over the last week.
One can occasionally see some mingling of the races within St. Louis at events like a Cardinals game or fireworks show at Forest Park, but the cultural divide, misunderstandings, and racism between and among the two races is still very deep.
4. Economics also plays a role in the story of Ferguson
Areas like Ferguson benefited greatly from the industrialization of the early to mid-20th century, with many people relying on relatively well paid union/factory jobs. However, since the 1950’s most of the major factories and the jobs they provided have left the area. As documented earlier, whites often left with the jobs causing property values to decrease.
Jobs are hard to come by in St. Louis even for a person with a college education, but they can be downright impossible to find for a person who comes from a struggling school like Normandy. Michael Brown was scheduled to go to a local vocational college, which is actually a more favorable path than the one walked on by many of his classmates.
The economic situation for people in Ferguson tends to create hopelessness, which then tends to cause people to look for any way to survive outside of the system which has essentially rejected them. This toxic combination leads to more crime, which leads businesses to stay away from the area, which further depresses property values, which further deteriorates the tax base for the school system. And so the cycle continues.
5. The story of Ferguson could play out in most major cities
While this story is about Ferguson, many major cities face the same kind of dynamic. The shooting of Michael Brown was merely a spark which lit a bonfire that had been built up over many decades in greater St. Louis. A similar spark could ignite a similar fire any day in towns like Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, and Charlotte. Nearly every major city has de facto segregation, and with it nearly every town has a group of people who are disenfranchised. All that is needed, in most places, is a story like that of Michael Brown to sufficiently united and energize the disenfranchised to take action. The story of Ferguson is a story of America, which makes it all the more important to learn from these facts.