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Ferguson: Gentrification and its discontents

Gentrification is pushing poor people of color out of major cities and into deeper inequality

The outpouring of anger on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown is partly a reaction to a long history of marginalization experienced by African-Americans, a process exacerbated by gentrification, argue experts. It should be no surprise, they say, that the latest racial flashpoint is not in the inner-city but in the modern suburb.

Ferguson is an outer suburb of St. Louis, the 16th fastest gentrifying city in the U.S., according to Census data. Not unrelatedly, a 2011 study by Brown University showed that the St. Louis metropolitan area was the 19th most segregated city in the U.S.

The social and economic inequality in the St. Louis area, which is divided along racial lines, is a microcosm of a problem playing out across the U.S.: Wealthier, typically white residents move into a previously economically disadvantaged neighborhood in the city, pricing out black families and displacing them to suburban outskirts, according to a recent Brookings report.

In 2008, the population of poor people in suburbs across the nation grew twice as fast as in city centers, the report said. By 2008, U.S. suburbs were home to the largest share of the nation’s poor. 

In the St. Louis area, this type of population shift transformed the predominately white town of Ferguson into a largely black one.

In 1990, white residents of Ferguson comprised 73.8 percent of the total population, while those identified as black made up 25.1 percent, according to the U.S Census. By 2010, 29.3 percent of residents identified as white and 67.4 percent as black.

During that same 20-year period, the city's unemployment rate soared from less than 5 percent to over 13 percent.

By 2012, roughly 25 percent of residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012) and 44 percent fell below twice that level.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis proper, the white share of the population jumped from 28.1 percent in 2000, to 49.2 percent in 2010. 

Experts warn that the concentration of poverty caused by gentrification is creating a suburban underclass, and with that, a risk of future unrest.

Knowing where poverty is concentrated is important because location plays a role in accessing the safety net and emergency services, the Brookings report noted. 

For instance, as poverty increased in 2008, more families applied for food stamps in the suburbs. Yet the participation rate remained much higher in urban counties than in suburban counties.

"This disparity raises questions about whether families in suburban communities know how to connect to safety net services like food stamps, and how accessible these services are in these communities," the report said. 

Steve Burghardt, professor of social work at the Hunter College School of Social Work, told Al Jazeera, "Ferguson is something that can happen in any one of a hundred places around the country. It's the nature of the daily interaction between a white power structure and a disenfranchised populace." 

In the face of continued disenfranchisement, some experts say that civil unrest is not a matter of if, but when.

"People are trapped in the bottom rungs of the social order and they face aggressive policing, so it stands to reason that a social explosion is inevitable," said Mark Naison, professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University.

Economic exiles

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Crowds gathered in Ferguson to protest the Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Brown have at times turned violent, with protesters looting stores and vandalizing property.

Police officers dressed in riot gear and carrying military equipment have clashed with protesters — many chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a reference to witness accounts that said Brown had his hands raised when he was killed.

“When you have a community comprised of mostly people of color represented by an all-white city council and police force that’s 90 percent white, it’s a catalyst for this kind of social explosion,” said Burghardt, who was involved in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.

He added, “America doesn't like to think we have places where we have dimensions of apartheid.”

Blacks in Ferguson did not gain political power as their numbers grew, a fact that contributes to current racial tensions, according to Yohuru Williams, professor of history at Fairfield University. The mayor and the police chief are white, along with five of the six City Council members.

The school board has no black representation and the Ferguson Police Department consists of 53 officers, of which only three are black.

What’s more, African-Americans are arrested at a rate roughly four times higher than white residents, according to statistics released by the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

Problems associated with racial inequality are drifting into spaces where historically, only whites lived, Williams said.  

“The criminalization of urban spaces becomes criminalization of black bodies," he said. "These folks move out to the suburbs and find themselves in the same situation, under the same sort of police suspicion. Protesters in Ferguson are wondering what are police there for. Because if you can shoot an unarmed teen and protect the identity of the shooter, and brutalize protesters, clearly, you aren’t here to serve and protect."

For one week following the shooting of Brown, the Ferguson Police Department had refused to release the identity of the officer responsible, citing safety concerns and death threats against the officer.

Increased policing is partly an attempt to manage inequality, according to Cedric Johnson, associate professor of African-American Studies and Political Science at the University of Illinois. “Rather than spending money to create jobs and welfare assistance, our government has shifted towards heavy investments in policing.”

Williams added: "We're still living with vestiges of segregation. We see it in our schools, access to social services, we see it in policing, we see it across the board. You can talk about desegregation of schools and opportunity for blacks and the fact of a black president, but when we look at criminal justice system, we see a new Jim Crow in the form of mass incarceration numbers and high unemployment."

Those who speak of a post-racial America ignore "manifestations of 21st century zip code apartheid," Williams said.

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