“Where is Ferguson?” As a native St. Louisian, I've been asked that question many times this week as the world watches White cops unleash tear gas and rubber bullets on Black citizens, marching toward the unarmed crowd in full riot gear for the fourth night in a row. This is the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teen, in a city where disenfranchised Blacks have had enough of the institutional racism that permeates one of the country's largest metropolitan areas.
Ferguson is part of the same St. Louis that is home to nine Fortune 500 Companies, three major sports teams, and one major brewery. The country’s 19th most populous metropolitan area, St. Louis has an economy larger than some first world nations, but the economic and resulting political power is held primarily in the hands of the Whites and rarely trickles down to its Black citizens.
The St. Louis metropolitan area is comprised of 94 municipalities that define the St. Louis we all know, the city that gave us such cultural icons as Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, Tina Turner and Miles Davis. It is my hometown, “Tha Lou” as we call it, and it is burning. As I sit watching, feeling helpless 900 miles away, I witness the town that shaped me, unravel with social unrest. And the sad thing is that I, and most St. Louisians, know exactly why.
We St. Louisians have our own language. When we meet each other, the first question we invariably ask is, “Where did you go to high school?” That is St. Louis speak for “Where did you grow up?” or more importantly “How did you grow up?” Were you likely to graduate? Were you likely to leave St. Louis? What about becoming a geographical statistic? Just ask someone from St. Louis that “high school” question, and we’ll “know.” In St. Louis, generally speaking, where you were raised within our city and county limits speaks volumes about your past and can often predict your future.
St. Louis was one of the destination cities populated during the Second Great Migration from the 1940s-1970’s that brought many of our ancestors to cities north of the Mason Dixon line in search of better jobs. As our parents moved into cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York, many of these cities fell victim to suburbanization, as Whites began to flee the cities heading for the suburbs, and St Louis was no exception.
When the Whites fled the city of St. Louis, some established restrictive zoning laws in their new residential municipalities that were designed to keep Black s out. Whites benefited from economic advantages in these new neighborhoods, such as school districts funded by homeowner’s tax dollars, while the neighborhoods they left behind suffered the loss of those tax dollars and a crumbling infrastructure. Between 1960 and 1970, 34 percent of St. Louis’s White residents moved out of St. Louis City. That economic downturn caused a Black flight, taking an overall toll on St. Louis city as a whole. Between 1950 and 2010, St. Louis lost 62.7% of its population. As Blacks began moving into neighboring suburbs in search of better economic circumstances, Whites fled once again, this time scrambling to suburbs as far away as 50 miles from the city and county. This second White flight further segregated the races and kept Blacks away from the jobs and money needed to sustain thriving communities.
This is what happened in Ferguson, a tiny municipality in St. Louis. Before the 1980’s, Ferguson, which is still home to the Fortune 500 company Emerson Electric, was 85% White. When Whites fled the city heading to Ferguson, Blacks eventually followed—then the White flight began The result: Ferguson now has a population that is two thirds Black but the governing power is held by Whites who have made Ferguson, and many St. Louis municipalities that mirror that same demographic and migration pattern, into their own little fiefdom, dictating who, for example, they stop (the Michael Browns of the community) and who they choose to protect (the police officer that shot him). Ferguson has a White mayor, a White police chief, 50 of its 53 police officers are White, and only one of the six seats on the school board is held by a Black person. The result: rampant racial profiling, higher arrest rates and lower graduation rates than its White neighbors.
Which brings me back to the high school question. Ferguson, where Brown’s grandmother lived, is two-thirds Black, a quarter of its residents live below the poverty level, has a school district on the verge of losing state accreditation and a graduation rate of only 69.8%. In neighboring Normandy, the city where Brown graduated high school, is 70% Black , with a median household income of $21,316.00, and a graduation rate only slightly better than 50%. Contrast that to Clayton, Missouri, whose population is less than one percent Black , has a median household income of $89,316.00 and a graduation rate of a staggering 98.5%. Simply put, in 2014, the largely Black population of St. Louis doesn’t live in or have equal access to the educational and economic opportunities afforded to our White neighbors.
What’s plaguing St. Louis, as dictated by the high school/geographical game, is sadly just a simplified reflection of what’s going on across our country as a whole; segregation and Black disenfranchisement still exist, we just don’t call it Jim Crow anymore. As members of the media struggle to blame the "rioters" for the unrest this week–unrest that has been increased by the militaristic actions of local police–those of us from there know that the tension has been bubbling for a long time. The death of Michael Brown has made the trouble with St. Louis impossible to ignore, but it's certainly nothing new.
Lisa Bonner is an attorney and freelance writer who lives in New York and hails from St. Louis. Follow her on Twitter: @LisaBonner