How Racism Became Policy in Ferguson

How Racism Became Policy in Ferguson

The Justice Department report offers a glimpse of the systematically oppressive and petty policing in Ferguson. But in order to fully understand how racism became policy in the St. Louis suburbs, we need to look at the history of suburban development itself.

Elmwood Park, Missouri, circa 1965 (Kirkwood Historical Society)

If nothing else, the Justice Department’s Report on the Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, released yesterday, gives us a broader context for Michael Brown’s death last August. This is not, we are reminded, simply about the culpability of a rogue or panicked officer. It is about a systematic pattern of oppressive and petty policing, driven in equal parts by local racism and local fiscal incapacity. In the inner suburbs of St. Louis, law enforcement maintains the color line and—in the absence of a stable property tax base—it pays the bills. But this ugly glimpse of the institutional culture of the Ferguson Police Department still only gets us so far. In order to fully understand how and why race became the central premise of policing in the St. Louis suburbs, we need to take another step back and consider the long and troubled history of segregation in St. Louis County.

The first part of this history is one of quarantine. Long before it was subdivided into the western suburbs of St. Louis, St. Louis County was home to a few African-American enclaves—including Elmwood Park, Meacham Park, Malcolm Terrace, North Webster Groves, and Kinloch (just to the west of current-day Ferguson). As postwar growth carved the cornfields into cul-de-sacs, suburban development skirted these enclaves, and the infrastructure that came to the new white suburbs—roads, sewers, water—came to a screeching halt at their boundaries.

The motives and the consequences were unmistakable. In 1937, the city of Berkeley, Missouri was created, on a peculiar half-donut plot, for the express purpose of cleaving the residents of Kinloch (99.3 percent black) into a separate and segregated school district. In 1960, a polio outbreak in Elmwood Park was traced to the absence of potable water, in a neighborhood surrounded by conventional suburban development in Overland to the north and Olivette to the south. In 1965, five children died in a horrific fire in Meacham Park: the unincorporated neighborhood of 100-odd black families was not part of the local fire district and its rickety community fire truck would not start. In the 1970s, even the United Nations took notice of the fact that Meacham Park, at the heart of suburban central county, lacked basic sanitary sewer service. And, in each of these settings, bordering communities used industrial or commercial zoning to create buffers or barriers between white and black occupancy.

The second part of the story was expulsion. Having quarantined these pockets of African-American occupancy, local officials then looked upon them as unfortunate interruptions in the suburban landscape—and targeted them for redevelopment. St. Louis County was slow to get into the urban renewal game, largely because it had no interest in setting up the public housing authorities that federal law required. But when plans did progress, their intent was clear.

The major redevelopment plans drafted in the late 1950s and early 1960s zeroed in on the county’s pockets of black occupancy. Unincorporated Kinloch was wiped out by the expansion of the St. Louis Airport. Elmwood Park was knocked down in the late 1960s and not fully redeveloped for nearly a decade. African-American homes were razed in Malcolm Terrace and, when local officials discovered that residential redevelopment would, under federal law, have to be made available to displaced residents, they turned the neighborhood into a park instead. The City of Kirkwood chipped away at Meacham Park, annexing its sole commercial strip in 1957 and then pushing this commercial development further in the early 1990s, clearing a third of Meacham Park’s homes to build a shopping mall. “That was a city ghetto sitting in a suburban community,” argued Kirkwood’s mayor. “Now it looks like a normal neighborhood.”

The third part of the story is the local diaspora that is still reshaping Ferguson today. In St. Louis County, efforts to sustain segregation and control black occupancy eventually failed. After the 1960s, public policies (or policy failures) began to dislocate large swaths of the region’s African-American population. In the 1950s, downtown urban renewal programs (including the first Busch Stadium) displaced thousands of families—some of whom were accommodated in new public housing projects, most of whom simply moved west and north ahead of the bulldozer. In the 1960s, redevelopment in the county uprooted thousands more. The slow collapse of St. Louis city’s north side also encouraged population flight—although the outmigration of African Americans did not really take off until civil rights law began to open county housing markets.

All of this converged on North County’s inner suburbs, including Ferguson. An older and more modest residential base, combined with the sustained dislocation elsewhere of those with limited accumulated housing wealth or savings, made Ferguson a logical and necessary zone of racial transition. The patterns and mechanisms of segregation established on the city’s north side both drifted into North County and were reinvented there. In the bargain, the consequences of segregation—including concentrated poverty, limited economic opportunity, a paucity of public services (except heavy-handed policing), and political disenfranchisement—moved to the inner suburbs as well.

The pattern of local policing described in the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson echo the observations of the first African Americans to test the suburban color line in the early 1970s. Witnesses at the St. Louis hearings of the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1970 described the unrelenting hostility of local realtors and homeowners, and the clear logic of “negro removal” that animated most redevelopment schemes. They testified to the collapse of local services as neighborhoods tipped black: “I don’t recall the streets being cleaned the last year,” recalled Adel Allen, an early black migrant to Kirkwood, adding, “We now have the most inadequate lighting in the city.” The exception to this, of course, was policing—which would became the only sustained point of contact between African-American citizens and their local government. “I think we got more police protection than we required when I first moved there,” continued Mr. Allen. “I don’t know if they were protecting me or protecting someone from me.”

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (2008) and a companion website.