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The St Louis Contrarian

Providing Independent and Intelligent Insight on St. Louis Public Policy Issues

Racial Divide in St. Louis

An excellent article by Tony Messinger in the St. Louis Post Dispatch

Why St. Louis?

The question comes from friends and family. It is asked by national reporters and newcomers.

Why, twice in three years, has the St. Louis region been rocked by racial discord displayed on national television for all to see as protesters face off against riot police?

Why not Detroit, Denver, Cleveland, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston or Memphis?

Why St. Louis?

The answer is as old as the city.

On Tuesday, after an interfaith prayer service and march down Market Street, a group of pastors stood on the steps of City Hall next to one of the ubiquitous birthday cakes that three years ago were placed around the city to mark its 250th anniversary. It was then, in 1764, when Pierre Laclede and August Chouteau, slaves in tow, established St. Louis as a trading post.

Racism in one form or another has been with the city ever since.

Why St. Louis?

Look to 1876, and the “Great Divorce” when the city of St. Louis separated itself from St. Louis County and planted the seeds for the white flight that would follow decades later, with 90 separate municipalities forming over time, many of them originally with restrictive covenants meant to keep out blacks.

St. Louis didn’t accidentally become one of the most segregated cities in America. It was designed that way. It was a feature, not a bug. The region’s geopolitical division exacerbates racial division, highlighted by that most parochial of St. Louis questions — where did you go to high school? — which can mask a thin veneer of classism and racial division.

Why St. Louis?

Blame the ’60s. When the civil rights movement was at its peak, when riots were forever changing Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, they didn’t quite spread to St. Louis. There were marches, yes, even police shootings that bear a remarkable resemblance to the stories of today.

October 1966. Russell Hayes was handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. He was black. He was shot and killed. Police said he somehow had a gun they missed. Protesters hit the streets for more than a week. They marched to the mayor’s house. Detectives were cleared.

That same year a Washington-based think tank studied school districts in St. Louis and Kansas City and found widespread disparities between the education available in public schools for white and black children. The study spurred a statewide commission — the Spainhower Commission — that called for the school districts in the St. Louis region to be consolidated so that taxpayers in the white parts of town were invested in the success of black students. The commission’s findings were ignored. Racism was the culprit.

“The only place where the report was weak,” James Spainhower told me a few years ago, “was in the thought that people could get over their biases.”

Also in 1966, a University of Missouri law professor published a white paper outlining problems with the municipal courts, calling them the “misshapen stepchildren” of the judicial system. Missouri turned a blind eye.

Until Ferguson, in 2014.

Why St. Louis?

Because three years after Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, not much has changed. The Ferguson Commission documented decades of racial disparities and pointed to a path forward, but few of its proposals have been adopted. There has been incremental progress made in municipal courts, some push for more transit to be built where blacks live in the city’s north and south sections, an increase in racial equity awareness, but no sustained movement. On Friday, in response to protests, Mayor Lyda Krewson endorsed some of the report’s conclusions. But she lacks the power to put them into practice.

The commission itself on Friday urged adoption of many of its calls to action. Without such action, the commission’s report could end up like one produced in 1969 when community leaders gathered at the Fordyce House at St. Louis University to discuss the city’s racial disparities. By 1990, as he was gathering community leaders for “Fordyce II,” the Rev. Paul C. Reinert, then chancellor at SLU, lamented another report on race put on a shelf to gather dust.

“The good will generated at that conference 21 years ago was largely dissipated because no follow-up procedures were established,” Reinert wrote.

After Fordyce II there was the Fordyce Education Conference two years later, which discussed the racial divide in education examined in detail by the Spainhower Commission, and again decades later, the Ferguson Commission.

In 2017, the racial divide — in schools, in policing, in economic opportunity — persists because St. Louis is good at talking about it, but not so good at enacting meaningful change. The region lacks a convener — either in government or the corporate world — who can bring disparate voices together.

Today’s protests, like those three years ago, started because a white cop shot a black man, but anger is about much more than the bullets that preceded death.

“Think about the peace that children don’t have when they go to inadequate schools,” pleaded the Rev. Cassandra Gould at the prayer service Tuesday. Without education, there is no opportunity. Without opportunity, there can be no equality.

Why St. Louis?

The words are right. The inflection is wrong. Change will not come until we answer a more introspective question.

Why, St. Louis? Why?

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