Over the last few days, punditry about Ferguson, Mo., has converged on a common, well-rehearsed narrative about segregation in St. Louis that goes back to the 19th century: whites will do whatever it takes to prevent blacks from moving into their neighborhoods, including redlining, restrictive covenants, large-lot zoning, intimidation and violence. When these ultimately fail, whites build new interstates and move en masse to the next ring of undeveloped farmland, leaving behind destitute neighborhoods with no investment or opportunity.
According to this narrative, the shocking lack of diversity in the Ferguson city leadership and the violence and rage of recent days are merely the most recent crops harvested from the old seeds of segregation. This narrative is depressing in large part because it suggests no real reform agenda. It implies that African Americans of North St. Louis County can take over the local government and police force only when the last remaining whites die or move to St. Charles County and the cycle of disinvestment is complete. The rest of us can only shake our heads in righteous indignation.
This narrative is wrong in several crucial respects. For starters, while St. Louis is indeed among the most segregated metropolitan regions in the United States, Ferguson and some of its North County neighbors are among the most racially integrated municipalities in Missouri and well beyond.
The first map below uses data from the 2010 Census to place Ferguson in the larger context of the racial segregation of St. Louis. While most of the region is completely segregated, note that Ferguson is part of a patch of integrated inner suburbs in North St. Louis County.
The second map zooms in on this region, and the third map shows Ferguson in fine detail. In the southeastern appendage of Ferguson, there is a dense, overwhelmingly black apartment complex where Michael Brown was killed. However, the rest of the city is, by the standards of American suburbia, striking in its level of racial integration. Ferguson and the proximate sections of Florissant and Hazelwood are composed of modest single-family houses on streets where blacks and whites live side by side.
A graph of race and segregation in St. Louis County helps place Ferguson in context. The horizontal axis represents the African American population share, and the vertical axis captures the extent of residential segregation by plotting an index of dissimilarity calculated from block-level racial data. It can be understood as the percentage of a racial group that would have to move to a different block in order to achieve a distribution that matches the entire municipality. The size of each bubble corresponds to the size of the municipality’s population.
While most of St. Louis County’s residents live in municipalities that are either homogeneous or internally segregated or both, Ferguson and its North County neighbors stand out for their relative heterogeneity and internal desegregation. Moreover, the income gap between blacks and whites is smaller in these municipalities than elsewhere.
Lost in the tale of woe about Ferguson is that while the entry point was often cheap multi-family housing such as Canfield Green, many blacks came from North St. Louis City for single-family houses, better schools and lower crime. While there are pockets of poverty and Section 8 renters that dominate the media reports, there is also a resilient black middle class, though it has been hit hard by the great recession. While a large number of whites departed for homogeneous St. Charles County over the last 40 years, many have stayed.
Racial segregation is declining rapidly in the United States, and North St. Louis County is ground zero. For those who see value in the preservation of sustainable multiracial neighborhoods, the low-slung middle-class suburban houses of Ferguson and Florissant might be as good as it gets in the United States.
The immediate problem in Ferguson is neither residential segregation nor its demise. Rather, as many have pointed out, it is that the racial integration of the community has not been reflected in the municipal government and police force, whose racial composition still reflects the status quo of the 1980s.
In fact, the problem is even worse in some of the communities surrounding Ferguson. For instance, Black Jack and Jennings are over 80 percent African American, with white mayors and evenly divided city councils. Hazelwood and Florissant have all-white city councils in spite of black populations of around 30 percent. Six out of seven members of the board of the overwhelmingly black Ferguson-Florissant School district are white.
This problem of asymmetric representation can be fixed, but it will require mobilization around a specific reform agenda. As explored in an earlier post, this asymmetry in political power can be explained in part by low African American turnout associated with low-profile April elections in odd-numbered years.
Recent research by political scientists has shown that small but well-organized interest groups, such as unionized teachers and municipal workers, benefit handsomely from low-turnout off-cycle elections. Historically, off-cycle elections have been a favored strategy of established ethnic groups in American cities who wished to keep immigrants and minorities out of power. In North St. Louis County, the most organized groups are white homeowners who have been in the same neighborhood since the 1970s, along with police officers and municipal employees who benefit from the status quo, and they have been able to dominate local elections.
Let us not learn the wrong lessons from recent events in Missouri. By no means does Ferguson prove the defeatist claim that blacks and whites cannot live together in peace as the inner suburbs transform. Those of us who grew up in the integrated Ferguson-Florissant area in recent decades know otherwise. It is not a post-racial paradise, but it is a functioning multiracial community. What we are seeing in Ferguson is not merely the latest manifestation of the age-old problem of segregation and housing discrimination. Rather, it is evidence that the best hope for a solution – the creation of integrated middle-class neighborhoods such as Ferguson – cannot work without political inclusion and accountability.
Hopefully, the legacy of August 2014 will be the genesis of mobilization among a new crop of community leaders and candidates for local office in conjunction with a movement aimed at consolidating elections in order to make governments and police squads more reflective of the increasingly diverse suburban communities they serve.
Jonathan Rodden is professor of political science and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a graduate of McCluer North Senior High School in Florissant, Mo.