On Saturday, August 9, unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, MO, an inner-ring suburb of North St. Louis. The details regarding the initial altercation remain fuzzy but the tragedy was reportedly set in motion by overly aggressive policing toward jaywalking (“get the fu*k on the sidewalk”). As consistently voiced by multiple eyewitnesses, the grotesque nature of the killing reportedly included multiple deadly shots as the suspect held his hands up in surrender… Unarmed. Brown’s untimely death has sparked outrage and non-violent protests among residents looking for answers, accountability and justice.
Unfortunately, some episodic looting among opportunistic ne’er-do-wells has also broken out (seemingly unrelated to the legitimate protests). Nothing excuses the unlawful looting in Ferguson, but the underlying grievance of Mike Brown’s family and frustrations of the local community are justified. Many whites – and sadly many of my own family and friends – will focus myopically on the handful of knuckleheads and dismiss the entire situation with a familiar “see black people are just out-of-control.” The reflexive venom emanating from my Facebook feed guarantees the looters are squarely within the sights of white America, primed to represent African Americans writ large and define the entirety of the situation. The reinforcement of animalistic deviance in the black community is tucked away for safe keeping and they are sure letting those looters have it. Nothing more to see here. It’s always about the looters. It’s almost as if an unarmed teenager wasn’t killed at all.
Unfortunately, from a naïve position of privilege, most white people are loathe to discover genuine empathy and nuanced understanding about the roots of anger bubbling up among minorities in places like Ferguson. After all, it would be unheard of for unarmed white teenagers to be gunned down by police in predominantly white areas like Town and Country, Chesterfield, O’Fallon and St. Peters. Why should they care? They should care because these riotous actions are taking place within a larger historical context that begs for deeper introspection and awareness. If we can bridge vast divides and achieve cross-cultural understanding, we can begin collective healing and constructive dialogue toward improving policies and societal conditions.
Some fury directed at the Ferguson looters is justified but rarely if ever matched by concern toward the victims of police brutality and broader systems of injustice that entrench minorities in a disadvantaged societal position. Yes, people are protesting in Ferguson because another unarmed teenager was needlessly gunned down by someone who was supposed to be a trustworthy protector of the community. Yes, people are protesting in Ferguson because minorities are subjected to 93% of police stop and searches. Yes, people are protesting because an unarmed black male is killed once every 28 hours by law enforcement. However, the protests also highlight deeper structural challenges and systemic inequality embedded in the black experience; ones that require greater recognition and sustained outreach from white America.
Never mind the obvious sins of slavery and Jim Crow segregation that laid the historic foundations of white supremacy and enduring structural inequality. It took centuries for whites to merely acknowledge the baseline humanity of black people. From the Plymouth Rock landing until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, America perpetuated a system of overt racial apartheid that dehumanized and forcefully relegated African Americans to an inferior societal position. Literal chains were only to be replaced with separate drinking fountains, poll taxes and lynch mobs, further solidifying the superior status of white identity. On one front, we should be proud of our incremental progress on racial equality, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, but we should not get complacent. We should refrain from patting ourselves on the back because we finally allowed minorities to eat at restaurants, own homes or attend college (of course having the adequate resources to own homes and attend college is another matter entirely).
In more recent times, urban America has undergone drastic transformation, much of which has been decidedly unfavorable toward minority inhabitants, yielding a renewed set of structural injustices. We are experiencing a “new world of the urban poor” as coined by preeminent sociologist William Julius Wilson. Over the past few decades, inner-city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson have become hotbeds of concentrated poverty, characterized by deepening social and economic isolation from mainstream America. U.S. cities have experienced unprecedented urban sprawl, becoming ghettoized as a semi-permanent, overwhelmingly minority “underclass” inhabit central-city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs, while a whiter, more affluent population inhabits outlying suburban and exurban areas. The exodus and abandonment from central-city areas has been staggering.
For instance, the population of St. Louis City reached a zenith at approximately 860,000 residents in the early 1950s. Today, little more than 315,000 individuals reside within city limits, representing a 63% population decline. That bears repeating. 63% fewer people reside within city borders today, nearly 550,000 fewer than just a few decades prior! Most importantly for this piece, dramatic metropolitan reorganization has been allocated unevenly across socioeconomic and racial status leaving mostly poor minorities concentrated in the urban core and inner-ring suburbs of North St. Louis including Wellston, Jennings and Ferguson. Meanwhile, a whiter, more affluent population selectively clusters in outlying suburban and exurban locales like Town and Country, Oakville, Eureka, and exurban parts of St. Charles County like O’Fallon and St. Peters. White flight from St. Louis’ urban core accelerated from the 1960s through the 1990s and continues into outlying exurban locales today as inner-ring suburbs, such as Jennings and Ferguson, increasingly experience decay and abandonment. How does the hyper-segregated “chocolate city, vanilla suburbs” dynamic come to exist?
Through decades of exclusionary suburban zoning policies that completely disregarded low-income housing units along with discriminatory mortgage lending practices that “redlined” certain residential neighborhoods, inner-city areas of St. Louis – and inner-city areas of many other rustbelt cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Buffalo – became methodically starved of social and economic resources and populated disproportionately by low-income minorities. Successfully acquiring suburban residency – and the myriad contextual benefits of suburban residency – was almost exclusively the purview of whiter and more affluent citizens creating the hyper-segregated metropolis we observe today. Massey and Denton’s seminal work, American Apartheid,and Hilfiker’s opus, How Ghettos Happen, highlight the systematic cloistering of impoverished minorities into inner-city enclaves following the end of formal Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s. The “ghetto” as popularly conceived has been purposefully manufactured through selective residential opportunities favoring privileged white citizens at the expense of disadvantaged minority populations.
Occurring alongside asymmetric suburbanization and ghettoization, America has experienced dramatic industrial restructuring, shifting the U.S. economy away from high-paying blue-collar occupations toward low-wage, low-security service sector opportunities, further cementing the alienated condition of those residing in distressed neighborhoods. The opportunity structure for all working class Americans has arguably become more limited and admittedly millions of white working class families are routinely struggling financially, mired in realities of low-income retail and hospitality jobs. Those with high levels of skill, college pedigree and connections are doing exceedingly well in today’s economy, while day laborers without college degrees or Rolodexes increasingly confront headwinds to economic security. The working class is comprised disproportionately of racial minorities, thus economic restructuring and fading opportunity structures are felt most acutely in low-income minority areas. In turn, high-poverty ghetto neighborhoods are relatively void of economic opportunity and community anchors, resulting in disorganized environments of instability and disarray. Civic organizations and accompanying financial and social assets, the glue that binds healthy communities, are largely absent in low-income neighborhoods. These distressed contexts ultimately matter to the outlook and behavior of its inhabitants.
Individuals growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods are continually reinforced with a sense of exclusion and persistent overexposure to deviant norms and social cues. These inhabitants are hermetically exposed to high levels of traumatic violent crime and rarely if ever digest mainstream expectations of college and career stability. Immediate opportunities are at McDonalds or 7-Eleven or in the underground economy, not accountancy firms. They observe drug dealers, athletes and rappers achieving success not doctors and lawyers, ultimately shaping the perceptions, expectations and outlook of inner-city residents. When merely surviving the day becomes paramount, any notion of long-term investment becomes completely foreign. It is the immediate ghetto environment itself that fosters an underclass subculture that marinates within itself day after day, year after year. The adage that individuals are the “product of one’s environment” rings partially true and privileged whites need to do a better job of acknowledging the ways in which distressed settings and external stressors can reinforce certain behaviors. There is a mythology that one has complete and total agency over one’s actions and fortune. Certainly personal responsibility plays a role, but the persistent exposure to external norms and cues also shape individual perspectives and behavior. How can we expect sainthood or mere collegiate aspirations and familial stability in a chaotic war zone?
Along with suburbanization and economic restructuring, a third structural phenomenon continues to fuel urban injustice in the 21st Century. Derived from the Southern Strategy of Nixon and Reagan that sought to garner the political support of disaffected conservative Southern whites, America launched a discriminatory “war on drugs” waged primarily within depressed inner-city areas ultimately leading to the mass incarceration of young men of color. Michelle Alexander’s widely acclaimed The New Jim Crow meticulously documents the manner in which biased law enforcement – and broader criminal justice system – has lead to a new racial-caste system of disenfranchised minorities. It is no longer poll taxes and separate lunch counters, but rather muscular drug policies that animate today’s disenfranchisement. Although whites and blacks are found to possess and use drugs at similar rates, law enforcement eschews suburban cul-de-sacs and college campuses, targeting efforts surgically in low-income minority neighborhoods. It is poor African Americans and Latinos that are routinely over-policed and feel the brunt of the drug war, and many familial anchors necessary to neighborhood vitality are quite literally sitting behind bars.
In a similar vein, our local law enforcement agencies have become more “militarized” in the years following 9/11 with injections of heavy artillery and SWAT tactics, and the brunt of militarized policing is oftentimes felt (quite literally) among minorities in low-income areas. We saw this manifest in Ferguson when police rolled in with armored personnel carriers, sniper rifles and tear gas seemingly provoking the restless crowd while arresting members of the press, including venerated Alderman, Antonio French, further alienating and engendering anger. The aggressive posturing from law enforcement in Ferguson has been palpable from day one of this affair. It’s likely what led to Brown’s death in the first place. Structural challenges faced by urban minorities are real and enduring and deserve attention, awareness and investment in potential solutions. Equality of opportunity, the platitudinal ideal of America, was always a cruel myth and remains elusive in the 21st Century.
High-poverty environments in contemporary urban America were purposefully manicured through systems of white supremacy and discriminatory policies and practices of residential exclusion. This much is certain. It is no accident or random happenstance that poor minorities are neatly segregated into the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of urban centers. These places exhibit a relative dearth of opportunity and social organization and therefore tend to reinforce disorganized behaviors among underclass inhabitants. Reversing these trends will take broad awareness and understanding across the populace and willingness to more equitably allocate public resources across the metropolitan landscape. Prospective policy adoptions, including criminal justice reforms and targeted investments in infrastructure, education and jobs programs in distressed areas must be explored. These are our fellow citizens living on the margins of society amid the land of plenty and merely desire an equal voice in society. A voice they have never had. Roundly criticize the unruly Ferguson looters but also be aware of the history of racial subjugation and systematic mistreatment that leads citizens toward mass unrest and bursts of protest. After you’ve finished chiding the looters, make sure to save some invective for systems that callously killed Mike Brown and continue to disenfranchise millions like him.