Robert Cohen / St. Louis Post-Dispatch / AP

Ferguson versus Whitopia

Focus on police bias obscures meaningful debate on structural racism that perpetuates racial injustice and inequality

September 21, 2014 6:00AM ET

In the wake of the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, the public has heard quite a bit about the town, its residents and their supposed violence.

But about half an hour drive west of Ferguson, along a highway straddling the Missouri River, you will come to what may seem a planet away: St. Charles County.

St. Charles is a “Whitopia” — a predominantly white county that has posted 6 percent population growth since 2000 and exhibits an ineffable charisma, as well as a pleasant look and feel. An outer-ring suburb of St. Louis, St. Charles is 91 percent non-Hispanic white, visibly whiter than its surroundings. Its metropolitan region is 77 percent non-Hispanic white in a state that is 81 percent Caucasian. Home to about 76,000 residents, St. Charles is the wealthiest and one of the fastest growing counties in Missouri.

Its quiet invisibility stands in stark contrast to the dramatic images we saw during the protests after Brown’s death. As the nation and world gawk at Ferguson, we need to train our eyes on St. Charles County too, for St. Charles’ economic and political realities contextualize the plight of Ferguson. It embodies the severe economic and racial segregation that harmed Brown long before Wilson ever fired a shot.

Distribution of resources

The ongoing debate about police misconduct sparked by Ferguson has highlighted the existence of deep-rooted structural racism in American society that erects barriers to opportunity and widens racial injustice and inequalities. Even when structural racism is recognized, its ambiguity and enormity discourage the public from taking action. Consequently, the media focus instead on reported police transgressions, specific acts of overt discrimination and the dramatic images of Ferguson protests.

But structural racism is the deeper disease, and acts of police misconduct are merely a symptom of it. It concerns how we distribute public resources to strengthen or debilitate our communities. Unemployment, underemployment, foreclosure and destitution have become the hallmarks of America’s new multicultural poor, a group that negates conventional political and academic assumptions about aspiration and poverty in America’s suburbs. By contrast, rising property values, well-funded schools and segregation have become the markers of the affluent communities that have separated themselves from surrounding areas. This is why if we want to understand Ferguson, we must also study St. Charles.

Over the past 15 years, as people and jobs scatter across the country — because of the migration of industries, the economic displacement of the poor and the social flight of the privileged class — segregation and inequality have also dispersed and increased significantly. In 2005 the suburban poor in the United States outnumbered their city counterparts by more than 1 million people. Class and racial disparity have migrated to inner-ring suburbs, those closest to cities, such as Ferguson.

The median household income in Ferguson was $36,121 in 2012. By contrast, St. Charles County residents’ had a median income of $71,458 in 2010. Furthermore, in the past two decades, Ferguson has seen dramatic racial changes. In 1990 blacks made up 25 percent of Ferguson; today they make up roughly 70 percent. St. Louis County has seen residential flight by people of all races. But the concentration of long-time black residents in Ferguson and new black migrants heightens this segregation. Such are the new American suburbs.

Beyond reforming police practice, America, as it emerges from recession, must rebuild an integrated opportunity landscape. That means taking a fresh, nuanced look at the suburbs, class and race – and the geography of opportunity.

A generation of white Missouri politicians, including former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, has made fighting school desegregation a centerpiece of their appeal to white voters. In 1996, Jay Nixon then Missouri’s attorney general and now its governor, fought to end a school desegregation program that bused students from St. Louis into better-equipped districts in whiter communities. Nixon, a Democrat, hails from Jefferson County, another modern-day Whitopia. In 2010, Missouri had 18 such counties with similar demographic and economic characteristics. The continued prevalence of segregated counties such as Jefferson and St. Charles dovetails with the leadership failure on government-supported integration as well as the decline of public support for racial integration.

Inevitable social engineering

The many Americans who dismiss racial integration as a form of social engineering fail to grasp the social engineering involved in segregation. For example, St. Louis and Ferguson have limited quality, affordable housing. And the public and private housing that is built goes up in neighborhoods where unemployment is high, where public transportation is shoddy and where there are poor public facilities such as parks and roads. And the school district where these facilities are placed is underfunded, with residents owning less property and wielding less political power. The Fergusons of America, then, seem all the more isolated, with their underfunded schools and transportation and lack of job centers. Meanwhile, the police do not appear underfunded. In the Fergusons of America, myriad black and Latino communities miss opportunities for quality housing and support systems — to say nothing of the disappearance of living-wage jobs. 

Nationwide, counties are enacting suburban land-use and zoning policies to promote larger lot development to sustain private property values and to restrict suburban rental housing — all of which limit the influx of black and Latino households. Such public and private behavior continues a legacy of residential segregation in counties such as St. Charles, inflicting a double whammy: The residential segregation furthers unacceptable disparities in wealth between the races, creating a geography of opportunity which determines who has access to the valuable resources that improve one’s life. The geographic gulf between placid St. Charles and Ferguson illustrates the underlying structural racism, which doesn’t arrive at the point of a gun. 

Even if community demands for the arrest and prosecution of Wilson are met, it will do nothing to change the power dynamic between Ferguson’s black protesters and the white establishment. The focus on policing might avert a potential for dramatic, long-term protests. But it extinguishes the necessary debate on the more critical issue of structural racism.

Brown was due to attend Vatterott College this fall, and his parents are now left wondering what valuable contributions he might have made to his community. The police and conservative media paint him as a deficit to our society. But Brown’s shunted life and missed opportunities serve as a cautionary tale of two counties.  Beyond reforming police practice, America, as it emerges from recession, must rebuild an integrated opportunity landscape. That means taking a fresh, nuanced look at the suburbs, class and race — and the geography of opportunity.

Rich Benjamin is the author of “Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America” and the director of the fellows program at Demos.  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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