Last weekend in Ferguson, Missouri, an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer. Over the course of the week, protesters — mostly African Americans from this majority-black community — were threatened and tear-gassed by the local police, most of whom are white. Throughout the nation, there was a widespread sense of outrage at such bold-faced racial injustice.
Were the events in Ferguson anomalous? Were they a departure from the shared values of “equality” and “reverence for the dignity of every single man, woman, and child” that President Obama, in his statement Thursday afternoon, claimed Americans share?
Or were they evidence that racist beliefs and attitudes have not changed as dramatically as many think: that, rather than equality and the dignity of all, many racially privileged Americans continue to endorse inequality and racial hierarchy?
Neither view is entirely right. Racial beliefs and attitudes have shifted markedly since the mid-20th century. In the words of Lawrence Bobo and his colleagues, “A Jim Crow era commitment to segregation, explicit white privilege, revulsion against mixed marriages, and the categorical belief that blacks [are] inherently inferior to whites collapsed. Broad support for equal treatment, integration, and a large measure of toleration supplanted these views.”
But racial hierarchy and racial injustice have not therefore ended. As I argue in my recent book, “How Americans Make Race,” challenging racial injustice requires more than simply changing racially privileged people’s beliefs and attitudes. It requires changing the institutions and the physical spaces that help keep racial injustice alive, even when attitudes shift.
Consider the division of a metropolitan area like St. Louis into politically autonomous municipalities like Ferguson, Mo. A small city of about 21,000, Ferguson is one of nearly 400 general-purpose governments in the St. Louis metropolitan area, which, as Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf and Todd Swanstrom have shown, is one of the most politically fragmented of America’s metropolitan regions.
Local government law in the U.S. permits and encourages such fragmentation. It enables the division of metropolitan areas, not just into multiple municipalities, but into municipal systems that effectively sort the rich from the poor and offer each a very different set of resources and opportunities. Because of our long history of racial inequality, this economic sorting translates into racial sorting.
Compare Ferguson, where per capita income is less than $21,000 to Ladue, another St. Louis suburb, where per capita income is almost $88,000. Ferguson’s poverty rate is about 22 percent, while Ladue’s is 2 percent. Ferguson is about two-thirds African American and one-third white, while Ladue is 94 percent white and just 1 percent African American.
How does such sorting occur? The state of Missouri, like most American states, grants local municipalities the authority to determine zoning laws, to collect taxes and to spend the tax revenue they collect on public services that they make available to residents only. Ladue, like many prosperous suburbs, uses this zoning power to limit high-density development. It restricts large portions of its land area to single-family houses. It requires that those houses be built on large, and therefore expensive lots. As a consequence, the price of admission to Ladue is quite high. And, of course, admission to Ladue is what buys admission to its nationally recognized public schools.
In the early 20th century, St. Louis was one of only a handful of American cities to pass a racial zoning ordinance. No African American, that law ordained, could move to a city block that was 75 or more than 75 percent white.
In St. Louis County today, municipalities like Ladue achieve a very similar result through low-density zoning: a practice entirely consistent with liberal racial attitudes like “support for equal treatment, integration, and a large measure of toleration.”
Ferguson is anything but anomalous. It’s an all-too-familiar manifestation of how racial injustice lives on, even after significant shifts in white racial attitudes.
To be sure, the events in Ferguson this week show that old-fashioned racism has not been eradicated. But the everyday events in Ferguson, in Ladue, and in the hundreds of other municipalities that make up the St. Louis metropolitan area, show that racial injustice does not depend on such old-fashioned racism. Changing racial injustice requires changing more than beliefs and attitudes. It requires changing institutions, like the institutions of metropolitan governance that perpetuate racial segregation and racial inequality.
Clarissa Rile Hayward is an associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. Hayward’s most recent book, “How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces“ was the winner of the American Political Science Association’s prize for the Best Book in Urban Politics.