A cop killed an 18-year-old unarmed kid, then his body sat in the street for hours. Outrage is the only imaginable reaction from any community in that circumstance. That’s why the Ferguson demonstrations are not the whole story, and the national media must recognize that fact. Much of the coverage up to this point has sickened me. To be clear: loosely using words such as “mobs” and “riots” to describe the deep-seated anger of the people of Ferguson is lazy, indulgent and myopic.
For one, peaceful protests are occurring, too. Maybe they’re not worthy of flowery war-porn language, but they’re happening and to exclude them is inaccurate and unfair. Perhaps more importantly, the level of discontent expressed by the people of Ferguson was not created in a vacuum. Mike Brown’s death has been like a tragic tipping point after a long, messy history of racism and segregation in Missouri. As my brilliant friend and colleague Hannah Cushman put it, "Mike Brown’s death was the climax to which nobody cared to write the intro."
Ferguson existed long before the death of Mike Brown, as did Missouri’s visceral race issues. Ferguson will prevail after the demonstrations subside, the pain eases to a dull throb, the police put away their military equipment and the news cameras retreat. Then what? Respect Ferguson for the community it is.Respect it by doing your research. I researched for one hour, and this post includes what I found. What I found barely skims the surface, so imagine the work that dedicated newsrooms could do.
These are quick facts that I got from graphics done by Mother Jones. As far as I’m concerned, every single report coming out of Ferguson should include at least some of this information in a chunky paragraph. Anything less is irresponsible.
- St. Louis is the ninth most segregated metro area in America.
- While Ferguson is over 60 percent black, the police chief and the mayor are white, one city council member is black and one school board member is black.
- Three of Ferguson’s 53 police officers are black.
- Last year in Ferguson, 483 black people were arrested and 36 white people were arrested.
- Last year in Ferguson, 92 percent of searches and 86 percent of car stops involved blacks.
- When police officers stopped citizens in Ferguson, 1 in 3 white people were carrying contraband; 1 in 5 black people were carrying contraband.
- Ferguson’s median household income is $37,517 — about $10,000 below the state’s.
- That said, 24 percent of Ferguson’s residents live below the poverty line — 1.5 times the statewide rate. Twenty-eight percent of Ferguson’s black population lives below the poverty level.
Before he died, Mike Brown lived in Normandy, an underfunded and unaccredited school district that has been a point of heated contention among Missouri politicians and voters, in part because largely white school districts don’t want kids from poor black communities. Parents in the largely white districts showed up to public meetings, then proceeded to speak about transfer students as if they were hardened criminals capable of violent crimes (there are recordings that I’m trying to find as I write this). The St. Louis Post-Dispatch doggedly covered this issue, so I’ll let the experts there do the talking:
- “More than 2,000 students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens, the other unaccredited district in the region, were uprooted from their schools this year, traveled long distances and settled in with new teachers and classmates only to now wonder where they will end up when the new school year begins.”
- Then, "The Francis Howell School District is turning away hundreds of students who left the failing Normandy district last year, denying them permission to return in August."
- "The decision marks the end to an endeavor in Francis Howell that was met with acrimony nearly one year ago. More than 2,500 people turned out for a School Board meeting shortly after they learned that students from the mostly poor, black district in north St. Louis County would be attending Francis Howell’s mostly white schools. Despite the initial anger, many transfer students said they had good experiences in Francis Howell schools.”
- Finances not the problem, Francis Howell in fact profited: “For the 2013-14 school year, the Francis Howell School District took in more tuition revenue than it spent on transfer students. Annual tuition for each transfer student attending Francis Howell was $11,034. Collectively, those children brought $3.4 million in revenue to Francis Howell. The district’s budget shows about $2.3 million in expenses related to the transfer program during 2013-14.”
- Then, a poignant editorial: “After deciding in a cowardly closed session the night before how it would deal with transfer students from the Normandy Schools Collaborative in the upcoming school year, the board of the mostly white district announced it was closing its doors to mostly poor, black transfer students from north St. Louis County. Never mind that about 350 students who were bused to Francis Howell in the most recent school year wanted to come back. Never mind that the school board pocketed about $1 million in profit last year while the Normandy district went bankrupt. Go home, the Francis Howell board said. We don’t want you. What a shameful example for the entire region, for superintendents and school boards, kids and parents. The Francis Howell board showed us the worst of ourselves.”
Long before Mike Brown was even born, the uphill battle he would face was building. From the New York Times:
- "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.”
This historical information isn’t privy to the Times. In fact, there’s an entire website devoted to it:
How are black communities being marginalized outside of St. Louis? Well, my friend and colleague Ryan Schuessler uncovered some pretty disturbing information on that front:
"Once home to thousands, these three small black communities in different parts of Missouri are of a sort that was once common throughout the region. But these testaments to the state’s African-American history have all met a similar fate: They’re nearly empty, if not completely wiped from the map. Their residents and descendants are scattered, struggling to maintain their history and in some cases struggling to reclaim their homes.
'People don’t really think about African-Americans in the country,' said Todd Lawrence, a descendant of Pennytown residents. 'They don’t think about African-Americans as farmers. They don’t think about African-Americans raising animals. And that’s certainly what [those communities] were. Those were places where black people lived in rural settings and thrived. We’re losing that sense, certainly in the Midwest, that there is this culture of rural blackness.'”
Finally, Mike Brown’s battles aren’t over yet even though he’s no longer with us. There are laws in Missouri that justify police officers shooting unarmed people. Again, from the Post-Dispatch:
“As federal and local authorities begin investigating the case, the key question will be whether the officer had reason to believe Brown, 18, posed a threat — gun or no gun.
The courts, out of concern for public safety and recognizing the dangers of an officer’s job, have traditionally given police a lot of latitude on that front, experts say.
'The federal courts are very clear that there are times and places where officers are allowed to shoot people in the back when they are running away, even if they are unarmed,' said David Klinger, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and expert on police shootings.”
This is way more than “riots.” This is a deep-seated issue with numerous legal, political, economic and social angles that each have decades of history and handfuls of qualified sources. Do better.