NY Times: Racial History Behind the Ferguson Protests

On August 12 the Editorial Board of the New York Times wrote an excellent editorial outlining how a history of racial segregation, economic inequality and overbearing law enforcement has produced so much of the tension now evident on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer.

Here’s some of the editorial.

But it doesn’t take a federal investigation to understand the history of racial segregation, economic inequality and overbearing law enforcement that produced so much of the tension now evident on the streets. St. Louis has long been one of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan areas, and there remains a high wall between black residents — who overwhelmingly have lower incomes — and the white power structure that dominates City Councils and police departments like the ones in Ferguson.

Until the late 1940s, blacks weren’t allowed to live in most suburban St. Louis County towns, kept out by restrictive covenants that the Supreme Court prohibited in 1948. As whites began to flee the city for the county in the 1950s and ’60s, they used exclusionary zoning tactics — including large, single-family lot requirements that prohibited apartment buildings — to prevent blacks from moving in. Within the city, poverty and unrest grew.

By the 1970s, many blacks started leaving the City of St. Louis as well. Colin Gordon, a professor at the University of Iowa who has carefully mapped the metropolitan area’s residential history, said black families were attracted to older, inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson in the northern part of the county because they were built before restrictive zoning tactics and, therefore, allowed apartments.

As black families moved into Ferguson, the whites fled. In 1980, the town was 85 percent white and 14 percent black; by 2010, it was 29 percent white and 69 percent black. But blacks did not gain political power as their numbers grew. The mayor and the police chief are white, as are five of the six City Council members. The school board consists of six white members and one Hispanic. As Mr. Gordon explains, many black residents, lacking the wealth to buy property, move from apartment to apartment and have not put down political roots.

The disparity is most evident in the Ferguson Police Department, of which only three of 53 officers are black. The largely white force stops black residents far out of proportion to their population, according to statistics kept by the state attorney general. Blacks account for 86 percent of the traffic stops in the city, and 93 percent of the arrests after those stops. Similar problems exist around St. Louis County, where earlier this year the state chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging widespread racial profiling by police departments.

The circumstances of Mr. Brown’s death are, inevitably, in dispute. Witnesses said he was walking home from a convenience store when stopped by an officer for walking in the middle of the street, and they accused the officer of shooting him multiple times when his hands were raised over his head. The police said Mr. Brown had hit the officer. State and federal investigators are trying to sort out the truth.

What is not in dispute is the sense of permanent grievance held by many residents and shared in segregated urban areas around the country. Though nothing excuses violence and looting, it is clear that local governments have not dispensed justice equally. The death of Mr. Brown is “heartbreaking,” as President Obama said Tuesday, but it is also a reminder of a toxic racial legacy that still infects cities and suburbs across America.

While the circumstances that led to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri are certainly unique to that particular city, Milwaukee does share some similarities with Ferguson. Business Insider ranked Milwaukee as the most segregated metropolitan area in the United States, there’s clear evidence of economic inequality, and many would argue Milwaukee Police have been overbearing towards minorities.


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1 thought on “NY Times: Racial History Behind the Ferguson Protests

  1. Two changes need to be made immediately; St. Louis County police chief, Jon Belmar, and Ferguson police chief, Thomas Jackson, should be removed and replaced immediately. It is apparent these two are incompetent, insensitive, or worse as I view the events.

    The reaction or solutions of Belmar and Jackson are likened to incendiaries pouring gasoline on an existing conflagration. If they are good men, but lack the morality and courage to reject the racism of their superiors or the local culture, then Belmar and Jackson become enablers of racism.

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