The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why government policy — not personal prejudice — is to blame for Ferguson

People stand in prayer after marching about a mile to the police station to protest the shooting of Michael Brown. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

If we take any lasting lessons from Ferguson, we are on the verge of learning the wrong ones: that some police are racist, that some whites will always take flight, that some places have simply lagged behind the rest of our racial progress.

These small conclusions dodge a much larger picture. Ferguson as it exists today — same with metropolitan St. Louis, and many, many cities like it — is a product of decades of explicit government policy designed to segregate blacks from whites and constrict their housing opportunities. These policies, from redlining to legally enforced racial covenants to officially segregated public housing, no longer exist. Federal agencies and local governments no longer publicly work hand-in-hand with the banking, real estate and insurance industries to exclude blacks from homeownership and housing in many communities.

But this largely forgotten history has shaped the racial dynamics and housing patterns in communities today in much more powerful ways than personal prejudice has. The most thorough account yet of these deep roots to Ferguson's unrest comes from Richard Rothstein, who details in a new paper for the Economic Policy Institute (and an accompanying article in The American Prospect) the devastating complicity of public policy in segregating communities, alienating blacks, and reinforcing in whites the idea that blacks make inferior neighbors. Rothstein's report comes with an ominous warning:

When we blame private prejudice and snobbishness for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash our own history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.

When we recount tales of whites abandoning the city for the suburbs, then the inner suburbs for the outer ones, we forget that white flight was long a kind of official government policy. When we talk about Ferguson like a uniquely combustible outlier, we ignore the similar racial history that shaped our own communities, too.

"Every single policy that I describe in this paper was duplicated in almost every other metropolitan area. And most of the policies I describe are duplicated in all other metropolitan areas," Rothstein says. "There’s no exception for liberal places like New York. The FHA created segregated suburbs in the New York metropolitan area in the same way it did in St. Louis. Liberal San Francisco is no different.

"This is not a St. Louis problem."

But, if you're optimistic, St. Louis creates an opening to talk about it.

The government created segregated public housing projects, as policy. It subsidized the development of suburban communities on the condition that they exclude black residents. It barred blacks from receiving government-backed mortgages, enforced neighborhood covenants barring black homeowners, and advised against integrating neighborhoods lest white property values fall. And it tacitly supported industry practices where real estate agents risking losing their licenses for selling homes to black families in white neighborhoods.

Local zoning regulations, meanwhile, hemmed in black communities with the industrial development no one wanted. It permitted liquor stores, bars and polluting businesses in black neighborhoods but not white ones. Then when all these unwanted neighbors devalued the property of the blacks who lived in these communities, they were systematically denied mortgage insurance. Local governments, on top of this, increasingly ignored these communities with trash collection, street maintance and policing, devaluing them even more.

Whites who saw the end result no doubt concluded that black neighborhoods became slums — not that government neglect and official discrimination forced slum-like conditions on blacks.

"It’s not just that private prejudice effects government policy," Rothstein says, "but the government policy has created the private prejudice."

Public housing projects — where they remain — are no longer officially segregated, nor are real estate agents encouraged to deny homes to blacks, nor are banks permitted to refuse them mortgages. But while discrimination can be more easily unwound in workplaces or even classrooms, it has proven particularly difficult to efface from the fabric of our cities. Past housing and land use policies, many of which were in place up until the 1970s, are now baked into how communities are designed and where we live.

"Even if there was no discrimination, even if everybody behaved perfectly, neutrally, with regard to race, we haven’t addressed the permanent structures that were set up by state-sponsored segregation in the past," Rothstein says. "They don’t disappear by themselves."