A history of government discrimination gave us Ferguson

tags: Ferguson

Richard Rothstein is a Prospect contributing editor, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley School of Law.

… By 1970, Ferguson was still less than 1 percent black. But it had some multi-family buildings, so when public housing in St. Louis was demolished in the 1970s, the St. Louis Housing Authority gave vouchers to displaced families to subsidize rentals in Ferguson. By 1980, Ferguson was 14 percent black; by 1990, 25 percent; by 2000, 53 percent; and by 2010, 67 percent. Other northern and northwestern suburbs near St. Louis were similar. Meanwhile, those beyond the first ring to the south and west remained almost all white. Recently, the white population in the city itself has been expanding.

In what follows, I’ll describe how St. Louis became so segregated—a pattern where racial boundaries continually change but communities’ racial homogeneity persists. Neighborhoods that appear to be integrated are almost always those in transition, either from white to mostly black (like Ferguson), or from black to increasingly white (like St. Louis’s gentrifying neighborhoods). Such population shifts in St. Louis and in other metropolitan areas maintain segregation rules established a century ago. 

I tell this story with some hesitation. I don’t 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 was duplicated in almost every metropolis nationwide. Yet this story of racial isolation and disadvantage, enforced by federal, state, and local policies, many of which are no longer practiced, is central to an appreciation of what occurred in Ferguson this past summer, many decades later. Policies that are no longer in effect and seemingly have been reformed still cast a long shadow….

The Department of Justice is investigating the death of Michael Brown and the racial practices of Ferguson’s police department, but has not suggested recent events reflect anything broader than Ferguson’s unique problems. 

Media reports have explained that suburbs once barred African Americans with private agreements among white homeowners (restrictive covenants) and with racially neutral zoning rules that restricted outer-ring suburbs to the affluent, with inner-ring suburbs flipping from white to black because of “white flight.” Modern segregation, in other words, is attributable to private prejudices of white homeowners who abandon neighborhoods when blacks arrive, and to the inability of African Americans to afford communities restricted to single-family homes on large lots. 

No doubt, private prejudice and suburbanites’ desire for homogeneous middle-class environments contributed to segregation in St. Louis and other metropolitan areas. But this explanation too conveniently excuses public policy. A more powerful cause is the explicit intents of federal, state, and local governments to create racially segregated metropolises. The policies were mutually reinforcing:

• Zoning that defined ghetto boundaries within St. Louis, turning black neighborhoods into slums;

• Segregated public housing that replaced more integrated urban areas;

• Restrictive covenants adopted by government mandate;

• Government-subsidized suburban development for whites only;

• Boundary and redevelopment policies to keep blacks from white neighborhoods;

• Real estate and financial regulatory policy that promoted segregation;

• Denial of services in black ghettos; convincing whites that “blacks” and “slums” were synonymous;

• Urban renewal programs to shift ghetto locations, in the guise of cleaning up those slums;

• A government-sponsored dual labor market that made suburban housing less affordable for blacks. 

That government, not private prejudice, was responsible for segregating greater St. Louis was once widely recognized. In 1974, a federal appeals court concluded, “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.” The Department of Justice stipulated to this truth but took no action in response. In 1980, a federal court ordered the state, county, and city governments to devise plans to integrate schools by integrating housing. Public officials ignored the order, devising only a voluntary busing plan to integrate schools, but not housing…. 

Read entire article at The American Prospect

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