Ferguson and the Festering Wounds of Structural Inequality

Note: Originally published August 12, 2014

On Saturday, August 9, 2014 unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, MO, an inner-ring suburb of North St. Louis.  Brown’s untimely death sparked outrage and protests among local residents, exposing long standing division and distrust between law enforcement and the minority community.

Nothing excuses the unlawful property destruction that occasionally broke out during the protests, but the underlying grievances and frustrations of the local community are justified.  Many white people – and sadly many of my own family and friends – will focus myopically on the relatively small number of unlawful actors and dismiss the entire situation with a familiar, “see Black people are just out-of-control.”  The reflexive venom emanating from social media guarantees the looters are squarely within the sights of white America, primed to represent Black Americans writ large and define the entirety of the situation.  The reinforcement of animalistic deviance is tucked away for safe keeping.  Prejudices have been validated.  If only they would pull up their pants, paths to equality, stability and prosperity would become obvious.

“How could they destroy property in their own neighborhood?”  From a naïve position of privilege, many white people are loathe to discover genuine empathy and nuanced understanding about the roots of anger bubbling up among racial minorities in places like Ferguson. Why should we care?  We should care because these riotous actions are couched within larger historical and environmental contexts that beg for deeper introspection and awareness.  In short, there are deeper structural issues at play and much more to the story.  If we can bridge vast divides and achieve genuine cross-racial understanding, we can begin collective healing and constructive dialogue toward improving policies and societal conditions.

Some fury directed at looters is justified but rarely, if ever, matched by concern toward the victims of police abuse and broader systems of discrimination and injustice that entrench racial minorities in a disadvantaged societal position.  Yes, people are protesting in Ferguson because another unarmed person was gunned down by police.  Yes, people are protesting in Ferguson because Black people are subjected to 93% of police stop and searches, but less likely to have contraband or guns.  Yes, people are protesting because small St. Louis County jurisdictions undertake predatory policing, issuing an unprecedented amount of tickets, fines and warrants.  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 chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation that laid the historic foundations of white supremacy and enduring structural inequality.  It took centuries for white people to merely acknowledge the baseline humanity of racial minorities.  From the Plymouth Rock landing until passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, America perpetuated a centuries-long system of overt racial apartheid that dehumanized and forcefully relegated Black people in particular to an inferior societal position.  Literal chains were only to be replaced with separate drinking fountains, poll taxes, and lynch mobs, further entrenching the superior status of white identity.  On one front, we should be proud of our incremental legal 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 applauding ourselves because we finally allowed minorities to eat legally at restaurants, own homes or attend college (of course, having the adequate resources and access to capital to own homes and attend college is another matter entirely and part of the larger structural story).

In more recent times, urban America has undergone drastic transformation, much of which has been decidedly unfavorable toward people of color, yielding a renewed set of structural injustices in the 21st Century.  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 and distress, characterized by deepening social and economic isolation from mainstream America.  U.S. cities have experienced unprecedented urban sprawl, reshaping the metropolitan landscape as a semi-permanent, overwhelmingly minority “underclass” disproportionately inhabit low-income central-city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs, while a whiter, more affluent population inhabits outlying suburban and exurban areas.  The exodus and abandonment from many 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 STL City borders today, nearly 550,000 fewer than just a few decades prior!  Most importantly, dramatic metropolitan reorganization has been allocated unevenly across both socioeconomic and racial status leaving many low-income people of color 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 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 areas as inner-ring suburbs, such as Jennings, Wellston, and Ferguson, increasingly experience abandonment and economic and social decay.  How does the hyper-segregated “chocolate city, vanilla suburbs” dynamic come to exist?

InnerCityBluesCamden, NJ Abandonment; Wikipedia

Through decades of exclusionary suburban zoning policies that completely excluded affordable housing units along with racially restrictive “housing covenants” (i.e. legal contracts barring racial minorities from homeownership), neighborhood associations and local governments effectively barred racial minorities from migrating into newer suburban developments that were meant for whites only.  Additionally, banking institutions undertook discriminatory mortgage lending practices that “redlined” certain residential neighborhoods, refusing to grant loans to minority residents. In turn, central-city areas of St. Louis – and many other Rustbelt cities like Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Newark, and Buffalo – became methodically starved of social and economic resources and populated disproportionately by under-resourced families of color. Moreover, highways plowed through minority neighborhoods, scattering former residents into poorer, more isolated neighborhoods, while allowing for a quick escape for whiter and more resourced populations.

Successfully acquiring suburban residency and the myriad contextual benefits of exclusive suburban residency – [quieter streets, greener spaces, fresher air, less crime, better schools and access to higher education, better connected job networks, better educated and connected neighbors, higher paying jobs, greater access to supermarkets and fresh foods, greater access to banks and financial capital, higher property tax base, etc.] – was (and continues to be) 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: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, and Hilfiker’s opus, Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, highlight the systematic cloistering of low-income racial minorities into central-city enclaves following the end of formal Jim Crow segregation in the mid-1960s.  First through explicitly racial means (i.e. explicitly barring racial minorities from certain residential neighborhoods) then through more stealthy socioeconomic means (i.e. exclusively zoning for high-income single family housing that remains unaffordable & inaccessible to most racial minorities). The “ghetto” as popularly conceived has been purposefully manufactured through discriminatory legal structures and selective residential opportunities favoring privileged white citizens at the expense of disadvantaged minority populations.

Occurring alongside these discriminatory and exclusionary residential developments, America has also experienced dramatic industrial restructuring, shifting the U.S. economy away from relatively 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-wage retail and hospitality jobs (or the “gig” economy).  Those with high levels of skill, college pedigree and connections are doing relatively well in today’s “winner-take-all” economy, while day laborers without college degrees or Rolodexes increasingly confront headwinds to economic security.  Families of color disproportionately comprise the working class, thus economic restructuring and fading opportunity structures are felt most acutely in low-income minority areas. In turn, high-poverty urban neighborhoods are relatively void of immediate economic opportunity and community anchors, resulting in disinvested environments of relative instability and disarray.  Civic organizations, rich social connections, and quality, high-paying jobs (and accompanying financial and social assets) – the glue that binds healthy communities – are largely absent in low-income urban neighborhoods.  These distressed contexts ultimately matter to the outlook and proclivities of behavior among inhabitants.

STLGhettoTom19Robert Powers; Built St. Louis

Individuals growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods are continually reinforced with a sense of social exclusion and persistent overexposure to non-mainstream norms and social cues.  These citizens are hermetically exposed to relatively high levels of traumatic criminal activity and rarely digest mainstream expectations of college and career stability.  Immediate opportunities are at fast food restaurants and convenience stores or in the underground economy, not accountancy and law firms. Inhabitants disproportionately observe drug dealers and athletes achieving financial success not doctors and engineers, ultimately shaping the perceptions, expectations and outlook of many inner-city residents.  When merely surviving the day becomes paramount, any notion of long-term investment and stability becomes completely foreign.  Notions of opportunity costs decline and there is very little to lose. It is the immediate ghetto environment itself, under-resourced people living almost exclusively alongside other under-resourced people, that fosters an underclass subculture that marinates within itself day after day, year after year, decade after decade.

The adage that individuals are the “product of one’s environment” rings partially true and privileged white people need to do a better job acknowledging the ways in which distressed settings and external stressors can reinforce alienation, hopelessness and certain antisocial behaviors.  There is a mythology that one has complete and total agency over one’s actions and fortune. Certainly personal responsibility plays an important role and we should remain highly critical of self-sabotage and self-defeating behavior, but the persistent exposure to external stimuli also shape individual perspectives and actions. When living among concentrated distress and desperation, one’s opportunity costs are low because there are few opportunities to begin with. Thus, social and economic isolation can invite an increased likelihood of non-mainstream behaviors like gang membership, drug addiction, unwed births, etc.

InnerCityBlues2North St. Louis; Thomas Gatheman

Along with selective suburbanization and economic restructuring, a third structural phenomenon continues to fuel urban injustice in the 21st Century.  Derived from the “Southern Strategy” of Presidents Nixon and Reagan that sought to garner the political support of disaffected Southern whites following the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, 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: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness meticulously documents the manner in which biased law enforcement – and broader criminal justice system – has lead to a renewed racial-caste system that disenfranchises people of color.  It is no longer literacy tests and separate lunch counters, but rather muscular drug policies that animate today’s disenfranchisement.  Although white and non-white people 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 Blacks and Latinos in ghettos and barrios that are routinely over-policed and feel the brunt of the drug war.  In turn, many familial anchors necessary to neighborhood vitality are quite literally sitting behind bars.  An estimated 2 million Black men are currently “missing” from homes and communities, vanished into the netherworld of prison cells and barbed-wire fencing. Once branded a felon, minority offenders face substantial barriers to successful assimilation back into society. They are routinely discriminated against by potential employers and lose basic citizenship protections, such as voting rights and the ability to receive financial aid for educational purposes. Meet the New Jim Crow.

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 people of color in under-resourced areas.  The recent eye-opening 105 page Ferguson Report from the DOJ confirmed many suspicions, unearthing widespread discrimination and egregious breaches constitutional rights and basic human dignity.  Minority citizens of North St. Louis County live in a state of semi-occupation, consistently harassed and brutalized in an concerted effort to issue an unprecedented amount of tickets, fines and warrants.  The goal is not to enhance public safety or build community bonds, but rather to extract maximum pain (financially and physically) from the citizenry in an oppressive moneymaking racket.  Minority citizens of North St. Louis County effectively live under a punitive apartheid police state that seeks not to serve but to actively target and punish.

Structural challenges faced by people of color are real and enduring and deserve attention and investment in potential solutions.  Equality of treatment and opportunity, the platitudinal ideal of America, was always a cruel myth and remains elusive in the 21st Century.  Yes, a modest percentage of the overly ambitious and actively mentored can beat the odds, but we should also work toward equalizing the odds and improving structural equality!

GhettoPovertyRandom2East Cleveland, OH; cyburbia.org

Isolated, high-poverty neighborhoods 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 low-income minorities are neatly segregated into the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of urban centers. These distressed places exhibit a relative dearth of immediate economic 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, jobs/apprenticeship training, and regional integration programs 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 property destruction in Ferguson, but also be aware of the history of racial oppression and systematic disinvestment that leads citizens toward mass unrest and bursts of protest.  Attempt to see the wisdom in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words, “rioting is the language of the unheard.”  After you’ve finished chiding the looters, make sure to save some invective for discriminatory systems that continue to disenfranchise and subjugate our fellow humans.