The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Repost: The Making of Ferguson = The Making of the Modern American Metropolitan Area

Scenes from the protests in Ferguson, MO in August.  Source:

(Note: In light of recent events in Baltimore in the aftermath of the tragic death of Freddie Gray, I decided to repost this piece from last October as Ferguson, MO exploded.  I said then, and say again, that Ferguson/St. Louis’ experience was hardly unique, and many cities across the country are primed for similar blowbacks.  If I’d add anything to this, I’d say that the cities or metro areas most susceptible to this type of violent reaction are those that I identified as experiencing concentrated gentrification, which are really cities where civil rights matters have never been effectively resolved.  I’ll write more on that later.  Until then, check this out. -Pete)

I came across a fascinating report from the Economic Policy Institute yesterday that simply blew my mind (thanks to Twitter buddy Brian Jordan).  Richard Rothstein, a research associate with EPI and a senior fellow with the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy with the University of California Berkeley School of Law, wrote that the making of Ferguson — entrenched segregation that locks in poverty and unemployment in some areas, while insulating others from it — is a result of federal, state and local public policy.  Even when those policies have been ended, their legacy continues to reverberate in our residential patterns.  From the report:

Many of these explicitly segregationist governmental actions ended in the late 20thcentury but continue to determine today’s racial segregation patterns. In St. Louis these governmental policies included zoning rules that classified white neighborhoods as residential and black neighborhoods as commercial or industrial; segregated public housing projects that replaced integrated low-income areas; federal subsidies for suburban development conditioned on African American exclusion; federal and local requirements for, and enforcement of, property deeds and neighborhood agreements that prohibited resale of white-owned property to, or occupancy by, African Americans; tax favoritism for private institutions that practiced segregation; municipal boundary lines designed to separate black neighborhoods from white ones and to deny necessary services to the former; real estate, insurance, and banking regulators who tolerated and sometimes required racial segregation; and urban renewal plans whose purpose was to shift black populations from central cities like St. Louis to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson. 

Rothstein suggests that our current understanding of the reasons for segregation pales in comparison to our understanding during and immediately after the Civil Rights era:

That government, not mere private prejudice, was responsible for segregating greater St. Louis was once conventional informed opinion. A federal appeals court declared 40 years ago that “segregated housing in the St. Louis metropolitan area was … in large measure the result of deliberate racial discrimination in the housing market by the real estate industry and by agencies of the federal, state, and local governments.” Similar observations accurately describe every other large metropolitan area. This history, however, has now largely been forgotten.

When we blame private prejudice, suburban snobbishness, and black poverty for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash our own history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.  

And just in case you think Ferguson and the St. Louis metro area are unique, Rothstein lets it be known that the mix of policies established there were put in place throughout the country:

I tell this story with some hesitation. I do not mean to imply that there is anything special about racial history in Ferguson, St. Louis, or the St. Louis metropolitan area. Every policy and practice segregating St. Louis over the last century was duplicated in almost every metropolis nationwide.  

The entire report is worth your time.  I think it deftly connects the events of Ferguson with the policies and practices identified by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his incredible Case for Reparations piece, and helps build the case that the close of the Civil Rights era did not lead to the end of racist practices.  In fact, I think we’re on the cusp of a general acknowledgement that the post-Civil Rights era will be known as the period when a less-visible version of racism, based on housing policy, incarceration and employment discrimination, was allowed to flourish.

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