The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why riots erupted in one of the most segregated metro regions in the country

Passers-by and media take a closer look Monday, Aug. 11, 2014 at the burned-out shell of the QuikTrip gas station torched during the violence that erupted in Ferguson, Mo. overnight following a candle-light memorial for 18-year-old shooting victim Michael Brown. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings)
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In the middle of the night Sunday, the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson erupted into a scene that's seldom been seen in urban America since the 1960s. Furious residents mourning the death of an unarmed black teen shot Saturday by a local police officer gathered at the site of his death for a vigil. As the night wore on, parts of the protest turned violent. A QuikTrip and a WalMart were looted. A fire was set. Two officers were injured, and 32 people were arrested for theft, assault or burglary. Police who responded with dogs and riot gear evoked a different time in St. Louis history.

This morning, this was the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Residents, advocacy groups and onlookers far from St. Louis are focused on the details surrounding the fatal confrontation. Police say the 18-year-old was unarmed. The unidentified officer who shot him at midday says that Brown attacked him. The St. Louis County police chief has promised a thorough investigation.

But there's a much broader piece of context here that has to do with a legacy of racial segregation in U.S. cities, which has eroded more slowly in St. Louis than many other big metros. St. Louis remains among the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country. According to data from Brown University's US2010 Project, looking at the 50 metropolitan areas with the largest black populations as of 2010, St. Louis ranks as the 9th most segregated.

That ranking comes from what's called the Index of Dissimilarity, a metric that reflects how evenly two populations are spread across census tracts within a given metropolitan area. A score of 100 reflects total segregation, zero total integration. Scores above 60 are generally considered high. Below, I've charted the Brown data for 25 of those metropolitan areas, including St. Louis, dating back to 1980 (I've shortened the place names, but each corresponds to a metropolitan statistical area, not just the city proper):

Segregation is not in and of itself the problem in any metropolitan area, but it contributes to inequalities in who has access to resources, amenities, opportunity and power. And the greater the segregation, the less likely communities are to form connections across different groups.

Antonio French, a city councilman in St. Louis, suggested to the New York Times that the legacy of race in Ferguson had helped fuel the community's reaction to Brown's shooting: “It’s a textbook example of how not to handle the situation,” he said. “Ferguson has a white government and a white mayor, but a large black population. This situation has brought out whatever rifts were between that minority community and the Ferguson government.”

That larger context — about geography, history and race — should be part of the conversation about what happened on both Saturday and Sunday. I have no special insight into the community of Ferguson itself, but I found this column from the Post-Dispatch's Aisha Sultan helpful in starting that conversation. Ferguson, she writes, is "a place where it's easy for the economic recovery to bypass the poor":

It's part of north St. Louis county, where whites left en masse beginning in the 1960s, creating one of the most extreme cases of "white flight" in the country. But many who remained in power are still white, including much of the law enforcement. A local lawyer said whenever she goes into the North County courthouse all the defendants are always black, the cops always white.