In the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, much anger and blame has been directed at racism within the Ferguson, Missouri police department and the militarization of local law enforcement agencies across the nation. But in a compelling new report from the Economic Policy Institute, legal scholar Richard Rothstein says those are not the root causes of the tragedy, or of other similar killings of unarmed African American men and boys. He argues that decades of explicitly racist policies at all levels of government created the conditions that turned a small St. Louis suburb into a racial powder keg:
We flatter ourselves that the responsibility is only borne by rogue police officers, white flight, and suburbanites’ desire for economic homogeneity. Prosecuting the officer who shot Michael Brown, or investigating and integrating Ferguson’s police department, can’t address the deeper obstacles to racial progress.
Rothstein is a senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the UC Berkeley law school. In The Making of Ferguson, he lays out in damning, impeccably documented detail how “deliberate racial discrimination in the housing market by the real estate industry and agencies of the federal, state and local governments” have worked together to isolate African Americans in communities with few jobs, inadequately funded schools and substandard services. In St. Louis and elsewhere, he writes, those governmental policies included:
- Zoning rules that classified white neighborhoods as residential and black neighborhoods as commercial or industrial;
- Segregated public housing projects that replaced integrated low-income areas;
- Federal subsidies for suburban development conditioned on African American exclusion;
- Federal and local requirements for . . . property deeds that prohibited resale of white-owned property to African Americans;
- Tax favoritism for private institutions that practiced segregation;
- Municipal boundary lines designed to separate black neighborhoods from white ones and to deny necessary services to the former;
- Real estate, insurance and banking regulators who tolerated and sometimes required racial segregation;
- Urban renewal plans whose purpose was to shift black populations from central cities . . . to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson.
In remarkable detail, Rothstein traces the history of Ferguson, from “a sundown town from which African Americans were banned after dark” to the first black families to move in during the late 1960s, to the “blockbusting” tactics real estate agents used to scare white families into selling en masse when any African Americans moved in, and how government agencies not only tolerated but encouraged white flight. He shows convincingly how decades of government-sanctioned housing segregation are in large part responsible for the economic inequality that divides white and black America today: After World War II, federal policies helped millions of white families acquire property, which has appreciated in value, creating wealth that is passed down to succeeding generations. Denying or impeding African Americans the opportunity to buy property and accumulate wealth has left them much poorer than whites.
And make no mistake, this is a public health issue. Income and education are perhaps the most important, and most definitively established, social determinants of health. The poorer you are and the less education you have, the more likely you are to suffer from chronic disease such as asthma or heart problems, to smoke, to become obese, to suffer from stress or depression, to go to jail or prison. Lower income means decreased access to health care. Poor people are more likely to live in substandard housing. People of color are far more likely to go to jail or prison.
We must realize that what happened in Ferguson, and what continues to happen every day across the country, cannot be fixed by integrating police departments and providing officers with better training in community relations. The changes needed are fundamental and won’t happen overnight, but Rothstein offers some immediate steps:
- Prohibit landlords from refusing to accept tenants whose rent is subsidized under the Section 8 housing assistance program;
- Require suburbs to repeal zoning ordinances that prohibit construction of housing that lower-income residents can afford;
- Require all communities to permit development of housing to accommodate a fair share of its region’s low-income and minority populations.
Every American who wants to understand how and why Ferguson happened should read this report.