A man, who was demanding the criminal indictment of a white police officer who shot dead an unarmed black teenager in August, holds an image of Michael Brown outside the Ferguson Police Station in Missouri November 24, 2014. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

In the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown last August, the question Americans confront is: “What next?” How can we challenge and change the longstanding racial and economic inequalities that Ferguson has come to symbolize?

Any satisfactory answer will begin by acknowledging that racial injustice in and beyond Ferguson is not just about the actions of individuals like Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. It is also about the structures—the laws, the policies, the social and economic institutions—that inform and shape individuals’ actions. Structural racial injustice demands specifically structural forms of political change.

In August, I identified political fragmentation in metropolitan St. Louis as a key cause of continuing racial inequality and racial hierarchy. Ferguson is one of almost 400 municipalities in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Although some of these local governments serve no more than a few hundred people, each has the legal authority to zone, to tax, and to spend tax dollars on public services for its residents only. This hyper-fragmented governance system sorts St. Louisans according to their capacity to pay for housing. Because of the city’s long history of racial discrimination, it also effectively sorts them by race. Political fragmentation ensures that those who can afford to live in the best-off municipalities receive public services—including, crucially, police protection and public education—that are far superior to the services provided the middle-income and the least well-off.

What might we do differently? As I argue in my recent book, “How Americans Make Race,” one important avenue for change involves centralizing authority over some political decisions to the metropolitan level. David Rusk suggests that at least three sets of decisions are key: decisions about land use, the distribution of local tax revenue, and housing policy.

As far land use is concerned, Portland, Ore., provides a promising model. In Portland, a metropolitan-wide body called Metro Council is responsible for land use planning in accordance with the state of Oregon’s requirement that local governments create urban growth boundaries to curb sprawl. According to Rusk, Portland’s Metro Council has dramatically reduced development in the city’s periphery, redirecting it toward the urban center. Were St. Louis to follow suit, it might staunch the flow of both people and capital to its western suburbs, encouraging reinvestment in older, inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson, and in the city itself.

Minneapolis-St. Paul is an example of a metropolitan region that has partly centralized the distribution of tax dollars, with encouraging results. In the Twin Cities, all jurisdictions that have the authority to tax contribute a percentage of their commercial and industrial tax base growth to a regional pool. Funds from that pool are then distributed progressively, with more going to low-tax capacity and high-population municipalities. Myron Orfield, who was instrumental in putting this system in place, argues it has reduced both fiscal inequality and also inter-municipal competition to attract investment by offering tax breaks and other concessions. Were St. Louis to implement regional tax sharing, a municipality like Ferguson, which at $9,088, has a per capita assessed value well below the county median of $12,690, would be able to provide public services in part from funds raised in municipalities like Huntleigh, which has a per capital assessed value of $119,860.

Montgomery County, Md., is an example of a government that has partly centralized decision-making about housing policy. The county’s Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit Ordinance mandates both that new developments of 50 or more units include a percentage of affordable housing and also that moderately-priced and market-rate housing be spatially integrated. In addition, Montgomery County requires that the local public housing authority have right of purchase for a percentage of all new units. Were St. Louis to follow Montgomery County’s lead, Ferguson would not be home to so disproportionate a share of the region’s affordable and publicly subsidized housing units. Instead, all of St. Louis’s nearly 400 municipalities would help house—and would help provide public services for—St. Louisans of moderate means.

Centralizing political authority is not the only viable form of structural change. An alternative is to leave decision-making at the local level, but to detach citizens’ capacities to affect local decisions from their place of residence. To this end, Gerald Frug has proposed granting all residents of a metropolitan area several votes and permitting them to cast those votes in whichever local elections they chose. Under such a system, St. Louisans might vote in the election of the municipality in which they work, perhaps with the aim of changing its transportation policies. They might vote in the elections of municipalities they frequently drive through, with a view to changing their policing practices. They might even vote in the elections of municipalities in which they would like to live, if only they could afford to, with a view to changing their exclusionary zoning laws.

In any case—whether the focus is centralizing political-decision making, decoupling political rights from place of residence, or an entirely different form of structural change—challenging racism requires more than just changing the actions of individual political agents, like those at the center of the events in Ferguson. It requires thinking creatively about institutional redesign and building political coalitions aimed at changing the laws and the policies that play a critical role in sustaining 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.