“The Making Of Ferguson” And Preventing The Next Ferguson

Terrance Heath

The conditions that made Ferguson, Mo., a powder keg waiting for a spark didn’t happen overnight, and it will take more than putting cameras on cops to prevent the “next” Ferguson.

An NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) forum — “The Making of Ferguson,” featuring EPI Research Associate Richard Rothstein and LDF Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill — today focused on the role “a century of purposeful federal, state, and local policy to segregate the St. Louis metropolitan area by race” played in the making of Ferguson. (See the entire forum on YouTube.)

Ifill opened the discussion by reflecting on her historical research into the impact of racial violence on black communities, to introduce the question the forum would address:

Rothstein first addressed how the “explicit intent of federal state, and local governments to create racially segregated metropolises” led to the metropolitan segregation in St. Louis and other cities, in his report “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles.”, which was the basis of the forum. Rothstein opened by noting both the parallels and incongruities between the race riots of the late 1960s and the unrest in Ferguson, and the “complete lack of historical knowledge” behind media assumptions about how Ferguson came to look “like the stereotype of inner-city ghettoes.”

Rothstein then described the “mutually reinforcing federal, state, and local policies” detailed in his report, that led to metropolitan segregation and economic disparity nationwide.

  • Racially explicit zoning decisions that designated specific ghetto boundaries within the city of St. Louis, turning black neighborhoods into slums;
  • Segregated public housing projects that separated blacks and whites who had previously lived in more integrated urban areas;
  • Restrictive covenants, excluding African Americans from white areas, that began as private agreements but then were adopted as explicit public policy;
  • Government subsidies for white suburban developments that excluded blacks, depriving African Americans of the 20th century home-equity driven wealth gains reaped by whites;
  • Denial of adequate municipal services in ghettos, leading to slum conditions in black neighborhoods that reinforced whites’ conviction that “blacks” and “slums” were synonymous;
  • Boundary, annexation, spot zoning, and municipal incorporation policies designed to remove African Americans from residence near white neighborhoods, or to prevent them from establishing residence near white neighborhoods;
  • Urban renewal and redevelopment programs to shift ghetto locations, in the guise of cleaning up those slums;
  • Government regulators’ tacit (and sometimes open) support for real estate and financial sector policies and practices that explicitly promoted residential segregation;
  • A government-sponsored dual labor market that made suburban housing less affordable for African Americans by preventing them from accumulating wealth needed to participate in homeownership.

Throughout, Rothstein emphasized, “This is not a St. Louis story.” It’s a story that occurred in the context of a history of policy-driven segregation going all the way back to the Jim Crow era, when state and local laws were enacted to roll back the gains African Americans made after the Civil War. That history encompasses some of the most iconic symbols of Americana.

Rothstein noted that the segregationist policies that barred African Americans from purchasing suburban homes in the 1950s, when they sold for about $8,000, effectively renders many African-Americans unable to purchase those homes today, when they sell for around $400,000. White families each “gained a few hundred thousand in equity,” Rothstein said.

Ifill drew a connection from segregationist housing policies to racial wealth disparities the impact of the housing crash on African Americans.

As Ferguson, America, and the rest of the world anxiously await the grand jury decision in the shooting death of Michael Brown, “The Making of Ferguson” — both the report and today’s forum, provide both a historical context for recent events and the first steps towards preventing the “next Ferguson” in the future. Ifill summed it up beautifully towards the end of the forum:

“We believe the answer is the stop doing the bad things we’ve done. What we don’t do is to take up affirmatively undoing the damage that’s been done.”

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