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"Ferguson: Nobody Should Be Surprised,"

by Gregory D. Squires November/December 2014 issue of Poverty & Race

Recent events in Ferguson, MO constitute the logical outcome of forces that were spelled out in 1968 by the National Advisory Panel on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission. In its report, the Commission observed that “What white Americans have never fully understood —but what the Negro can never forget —is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The report then warned of a “permanent division of our country into two societies: one, largely Negro and poor, located in the central cities; the other predominantly white and affluent, located in the suburbs and outlying areas.”

The increasing segregation of older suburbs like Ferguson does not precisely fit the pattern described by the Kerner Commission, but it is a natural outgrowth of the policies documented by their report. The reality of uneven development documented in the Kerner report persists to this day in metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. By “uneven development,” I share the definition offered by Kevin Fox Gotham and Miriam Greenberg in their 2014 book Crisis Cities, where they refer to:
“unequal patterns of metropolitan growth that reproduce racial and class-based inequalities and segregation, inner-city disinvestment, suburban sprawl, interurban competition for investment, and disparities both within and between cities.”
To understand recent events in Ferguson, and similar tensions in communities around the US, we need to go beyond an understanding (accurate or inaccurate) of individual or cultural characteristics (e.g., work ethic of racial minorities, culture of poverty among the urban poor, racial prejudice on the part of police) and examine the institutions that shape the continuing uneven development of the nation’s metropolitan areas. Key forces are persisting racial segregation and rising economic inequality.

While nationwide most measures of segregation peaked in the 1970s, in those older industrial cities where the African-American population is concentrated (what Brown University sociologist John Logan refers to as the ghetto belt including Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis and many others), segregation remains at hypersegregated levels. Segregation of Hispanics and Asians, though much lower than is the case for blacks, has remained basically unchanged during these years.

Meanwhile, economic segregation, like economic inequality generally, is surging. As the Pew Research Center reported, between 1980 and 2010 the share of low-income census tracts (where the majority of residents have incomes below two-thirds the national median) in the nation’s 30 largest metropolitan areas grew from 12% to 18%. Similarly, the share of upper-income tracts (where the majority had incomes double the median) grew from 3% to 6%. Perhaps more significantly, the share of poor households residing in poor areas grew from 23% to 28% while the share of rich households in rich areas doubled from 9% to 18%. Poor people and rich people are living increasingly apart.

These are not simply cold numbers. A wealth of social science evidence has documented that poor neighborhoods are communities where schools are more likely to be failing, where poverty and unemployment rates are higher, where racial profiling and mass incarceration turn ordinary citizens into criminals, banks are few but payday lenders and other predatory financial services are prevalent, food deserts persist, and a host of other social problems are concentrated. These disadvantages are now redistributing, unevenly, into the suburbs. As the Brookings Institution reported, in Ferguson the poverty level doubled between 2000 and 2012, reaching over 25%, and unemployment jumped from 5% to 13%. Context matters.

Another key finding of The Kerner Commission was that instances of civil disorder were often triggered by an encounter between the police and ordinary citizens, in neighborhoods where the police had long been viewed as an occupying army rather than those who serve and protect. In Ferguson, such an encounter tragically ended in the death of Michael Brown. We rightfully have many responses to events in Ferguson. Surprise should not be one of them.

Needed Next Steps

And there is no great surprise as to what at least some of the next steps should be. Improved policing beginning by demilitarizing police tactics and increasing the diversity of the police force are essential. But it is equally important to address the institutional structures underpinning the uneven development of our communities.

Elimination of exclusionary zoning ordinances in the St. Louis metropolitan area (and virtually all metropolitan areas nationwide) that keep low-income people out of prosperous communities, along with more intensive inclusionary zoning laws to break down these barriers and create more economically and racially integrated neighborhoods would be a good start.

Smart growth policies that foster balanced urban communities and discourage climate-destroying sprawl may be essential just to preserve the species. A national urban policy that puts more resources into mass transit and less into highway construction would be another place to start. Transit-oriented development (where localities encourage construction of new homes and businesses near bus and subway stations) and location-efficient mortgages (where lenders provide lower-cost loans for those who reside near mass transit) are just two approaches.

A tax system that does not privilege capital gains over wages would be a next step. The global wealth tax Thomas Piketty called for in his celebrated book Capital in the 21st Century may not be politically feasible today, but perhaps in just a few years (or election cycles) it could be.

Uneven development remains the dominant force shaping the social problems that have become all too familiar in the nation’s cities and metropolitan areas, including most recently in Ferguson. More balanced, equitable development will reduce the number of distressed neighborhoods and, consequently, the stereotypes often attached to many urban residents, reducing police/community tensions and many other problems as well. While it is important to understand and develop the capabilities of the various players, it is equally important to understand and, where appropriate, change the rules of the game.

Gregory D. Squires , a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is a Professor of Sociology & Public Policy & Public Administration at George Washington University. A shorter version of this article appeared as an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 8, 2014.

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