By Philip McHarris and Pedro Regalado
One year ago today, 18-year-old Michael Brown lay dead on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri for over four hours before being moved after being murdered by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. Soon, the nation would take notice.
On the anniversary of Brown’s death, we take a critical look into the world in which he lived and died. From racist housing policies that haunt Ferguson in the form of redlining from past decades, to municipal court practices that impose “hidden taxes” on Ferguson’s black residents in the present, Brown’s murder symbolizes the insidious nature of compounded structural racism in black and brown communities across the United States.
Recent census data reveals that 22 percent of Ferguson residents live below the poverty line; the rate is even higher for African-Americans at 29.7 percent.1 New research has also suggested that once poverty rates in neighborhoods reach 20 percent, the consequences of concentrated poverty begin to emerge and have discernable effects on a variety of life outcomes and overall well-being.2 Still, while researchers have begun to explore how “neighborhood effects” impact individuals and communities in urban areas, there has been little research into how concentrated poverty takes shape in U.S. suburbs.3 This is despite a dramatic growth in suburban areas that have experienced concentrated poverty over the past two decades.4
Brown’s untimely death thus prompts us to focus on contemporary black suburbs in order to reimagine how race might intersect with space and inequality in areas like Ferguson that, similar to many suburbs that have sizable black populations, were once predominantly white. Doing so pushes beyond common narratives of suburban growth as a whites-only escape from the social ills of city life. For the reality that Brown faced in Ferguson parallels the conditions one might typically associate with black and brown life in urban centers. And the racial and economic inequality that he and other African Americans face in places like Chicago or St. Louis City has followed them to what, a half-century ago, was an unlikely place: the suburb.
Mass white flight ravaged St. Louis during the 1950’s as whites migrated to the city’s surrounding suburbs, reaching the edges of the Missouri River north and west of the St. Louis.5 Most of this out-migration was made exclusive to white residents as a result of state-enabled forces in the form of realtor’s agreements, restrictive covenants, and HOLC ratings that sought to maintain the “racial harmony” in these newly populated areas.6 Meanwhile, public housing construction in St. Louis skyrocketed and was mainly intended to address the increasing number of African Americans moving to the city as well as those already living in substandard conditions.7
As the 1970’s and 1980’s rolled through, white flight occurred once more. Not from the city, however, but from the same suburbs that whites had made their sanctuary. In 1970, Ferguson was 99 percent white.8 A decade later that figure dropped to 85 percent with whites migrating further out into metropolitan area to places like Oakville and Ballwin. The geo-racial line continued to shift, and by 2010, Ferguson’s population was 67 percent black and 29 percent white.9 As a result of the legacy of racial inequality in the U.S., and the intertwined nature of wealth and disadvantage, this meant less resources and a lower tax base for poorer, black residents moving into suburbia.
For black urbanites accustomed to strife in St. Louis during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the real possibility of moving to a suburb held enormous potential. And if the lives of those who occupied their suburbs before them were any indication of how their own lives might go, i.e. large green lawns, white-picket fences, and good schools, these migrants indeed had cause to be hopeful. But as evident with Brown’s murder almost a half-century later, forces similar to those that threaten black bodies in St. Louis have undermined the value of that aspiration. This includes police violence, but also the actions of state bodies less associated with producing physical violence.
According to the St. Louis non-profit Better Together, the vast majority of black municipalities in St. Louis County derive at least 20 percent of their general budget from fines and court fees.10 Ferguson itself saw its municipal court revenue jump from $1.4 million in 2011 to $2.5 million in 2013, accounting for 20 percent of its own revenue.11
St. Louis County municipal courts also profit from exploitative policies, bringing in an average of over three times more than they cost to operate.12 The gravity of this statistic is heavily underscored by the uneven percentage of black drivers that are pulled over by police in St. Louis County. In 2013, the state’s Attorney General found that to be 66 percent.13 But police violence only enforces municipal predatory revenue practices. If Brown was arrested on that early August afternoon in Ferguson without fatality, we could assume that he would still have had to pay exorbitant court fees and face imprisonment if he was unable to do so.
As a result of the dedicated work spearheaded by the family of Michael Brown and activists from Ferguson and St. Louis, a national Movement for Black Lives has emerged to challenge the various forms of systematic violence that targets Black bodies. Earlier this year, lawyers from Equal Justice Under Law, ArchCity Defenders, and the Saint Louis University School of Law filed lawsuits against Ferguson challenging municipal ticketing operations.14 And this past July, governor Jay Nixon signed a municipal court reform bill that caps court revenues and creates new regulations in an attempt to curb municipal predatory practices statewide.15
On the national scale, at least 40 state measures have been passed attempt to address police violence and extractive criminal justice policies.16 Still, these reforms, which have garnered widespread support throughout the country, only begin to scratch the surface of a deeply engrained problem that goes beyond police practices and includes the day-to-day operations of seemingly benign municipal institutions. Furthermore, some of the reforms, such as the use of body cameras, have the ability to exacerbate civil rights violations by increasing surveillance capacity without complete community control and oversight over local law enforcement.17
STRUCTURE AND POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY
Darren Wilson pulled the trigger of the gun that murdered Michael Brown, but white supremacy as a system rooted in the devaluation of black lives, part of America’s foundation, is equally responsible.18 The legacy of white supremacy, in the form of police brutality, municipal violence, and concentrated black poverty, continues to leave far too many black and brown communities criminalized in cities and suburbs alike.
At present, the federal government provides state and local police departments with $4.3 billion in military gear transferred through the 1033 Program alone.19 Yet increased policing is not the solution for the problems of impoverished communities. Decarceration and community control of police by those most directly affected by police violence and extractive local governments should take precedent. Initiatives which advocate disinvesting in the criminal justice system and reinvesting in communities with race-based, class inflected policies will begin to dismantle the society which murdered Michael Brown and countless other black bodies.
In the discourse surrounding race and inequality, much work remains as we grapple with how suburbs, as well as rural areas across the United States, continue to shape the evolving landscape of race in America. For the clean, peaceful, working-class image of suburbs that dominated America’s imagination in the Post War period, has never been available to Black Americans even as they increasingly and paradoxically call the suburb home. Anti-blackness transcends spatial boundaries. For many working class blacks, life in the suburbs was, and is, not all that different from life in the city. One year later, Michael Brown’s murder poignantly reminds us of this.
1. [At least 2 census blocks in Ferguson have a poverty rate above 40%. Additionally, 40.8 percent of children living in Ferguson live under the poverty line (American Community Survey 2013). ↩
2. [Geoge C. Galster, Jackie M. Cutsinger, and Ron Malega. 2008. “The Costs of Concentrated Poverty: Neighborhood Property Markets and the Dynamics of Decline.” In Nicolas P. Retsinas and Eric S. Belsky, eds., Revisiting Rental Housing: Policies, Programs, and Priorities. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 116–9.]↩
3. [Sharkey, Patrick, and Jacob W. Faber. “Where, when, why, and for whom do residential contexts matter? Moving away from the dichotomous understanding of neighborhood effects.” Annual Review of Sociology 40 (2014): 559-579.]↩
4. [Elizabeth Kneebone, “The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty, 2000 to 2008-2012,” The Brookings Institution, July 31, 2014. From http://brookings.edu/research/interactives/2014/concentrated -poverty/.]↩
7. [Ibid. Among the most famous among these housing projects was Pruitt-Igoe, completed in the 1950’s and demolished in the mid-1970’s.]↩
8. [U.S. Census Bureau. “Race, 1970.” Social Explorer. Web. Aug 5, 2015.]↩
9. [“Ferguson (City), Missouri.” U.S. Census Bureau: State and County QuickFacts, 2015. From http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/29/2923986.html. ]↩
10. [“Executive Summary: Municipal Courts Report,” Better Together, Public Safety Studies, October 2014. From http://www.bettertogetherstl.com/studies/public-safety/municpal-courts-report/.%5D↩
11. [Mike Maciag, “Skyrocketing Court Fines Are Major Revenue Generator for Ferguson,” Governing, August 22, 2014. From http://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/gov-ferguson-missouri-court-fines-budget.html%5D↩
12. [“Executive Summary: Municipal Courts Report.”]↩
13. [Missouri Vehicle Stops: Annual Report,” Missouri Attorney General, 2013. From https://ago.mo.gov/home/vehicle-stops-report/2013-executive-summary/.%5D↩
14. [ “Ferguson Sued for Municipal Fines & Jailing Those Who Can’t Pay,” Reuters, February 9, 2015. From http://www.rt.com/usa/230739-ferguson-fine-jail-lawsuit/.%5D↩
15. [Robert Patrick, “Almost a Year After Ferguson, Missouri Passes Court Reforms,” Tribune News Service, July 13, 2015. From http://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/tns-missouri-court-reform-law.html)%5D↩
16. [LIEB, DAVID. 2015. ‘Ferguson Spurs 40 New State Measures; Activists Want More’. The Seattle Times. Retrieved August 5, 2015 (http://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/ferguson-spurs-40-new-state-measures-activists-want-more/).]↩
17. [As has been revealed by instances of police violence caught on tape, simply having footage does not necessary lead to any form of justice. See here for the ways in which video footage is contested: Stuart, Forrest. 2011. “Constructing Police Abuse after Rodney King: How Skid Row Residents and the LAPD Contest Video Evidence.” Law and Social Inquiry 36 (2): 327-353.]↩
18. [See here for more on using white supremacy as a frame for understanding the contemporary racial order: Strmic-Pawl, Hephzibah V. “More Than a Knapsack The White Supremacy Flower as a New Model for Teaching Racism.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1.1 (2015): 192-197.]↩
19. [Department of Defense, Law Enforcement Support Office. 2014. “LESO property transferred to participating agencies.” Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.dispositionservices.dla.mil/efoia-privacy/pages/ereadingroom.aspx%5D↩