As many have noted, the city of St. Louis has long been plagued by racism. The police killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests, however, took place in Ferguson, a once affluent suburb of 21,000. The town, and the situation it’s currently embroiled in, is emblematic of the shifting demographics of American suburbs, and it should be seen as a cautionary tale.
According to a report from the Brookings Institute, the number of our nation's suburban neighborhoods in which 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012) "more than doubled between 2000 and 2008-2012." Unsurprisingly, there are often also racial and class components. "Like Ferguson, many of these changing suburban communities are home to out-of-step power structures, where the leadership class, including the police force, does not reflect the rapid demographic changes that have reshaped these places," the report says.
Since the 1980s, many once-strong black communities in the areas surrounding St. Louis were systematically debased and in some cases residents were forced out. Kinloch, once a "vibrant, self-sustaining, middle-class community of thousands in north St. Louis County" was essentially razed in the 1980s under the auspices of an airport runway extension. The extension never happened, but the residents of Kinloch had largely been displaced to municipalities where "historic laws had long forbidden black citizens from owning land." Many were displaced to Ferguson.
From the New York Times:
As black families moved into Ferguson, the whites fled. In 1980, the town was 85 percent white and 14 percent black; by 2010, it was 29 percent white and 69 percent black. But blacks did not gain political power as their numbers grew. The mayor and the police chief are white, as are five of the six City Council members. The school board consists of six white members and one Hispanic. As Mr. Gordon explains, many black residents, lacking the wealth to buy property, move from apartment to apartment and have not put down political roots.
But in that time Ferguson also experienced a rapid transformation in the poverty demographic. Again, from the Brookings Institute report:
The city’s unemployment rate rose [in "recent years'] from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. For those residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third. The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of the decade.
The strains of living in areas of concentrated poverty, if not already obvious, have been well documented. According to a recently released report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the preliminary results of a study concerning concentrated poverty's effects on residents, many individuals in the study's treatment group—which was given assistance with moving out of areas of concentrated poverty—showed significant improvements in mental and physical health:
After five to seven years, families who participated in the treatment group lived in better neighborhoods, and adults experienced better physical and mental health compared with the control group. Girls in these families showed significant mental health improvements, although boys may have fared worse.
None of this, of course, should be factored into determining the guilt of a police officer who shot an unarmed teenager six times, but as we watch Ferguson heal and work toward a more equitable future, history, race, and the demographics of poverty cannot be forgotten, and the future of our country must be informed by it.