As I watched the news coverage of the sad events in Ferguson, MO, a north side suburb of my hometown, St. Louis, countervailing emotions take hold.
St. Louis missed the violence and riots of the late 1960s and early 1970s for reasons we really do not understand. It has always been a binary community, blacks on the north side, whites on the south side. The old French and German culture is vestigial while the Italian influence is discernible mostly in the fantastic number of excellent restaurants in town. This self-sorting of the races continued out from the very restricted boundaries of the City to the suburbs, a black track heading to the north and northwest and a white track to the west, south, and southwest. This, no doubt, was one of the causes, along with affluence, of the rapid expansion of St. Charles County, just across the Missouri River, now a Republican stronghold. Many of the former and current white residents of the north side suburbs, like Ferguson, were Irish-Catholic and Democratic. An oft-quoted joke: a Democrat crossing the river became a Republican voter almost overnight.
In 1944 my alma mater, Saint Louis University, admitted five black American students, two undergraduates and three graduate students. It was the first school of any kind in St. Louis to admit blacks and the first university in any of the 14 former slave states to admit non-white students. Recall that this was 10 years before Brown v. Board of Education. While the University had been contemplating this move for some time, the precipitating event was a famous sermon on the nation’s racial divide delivered by Father Claude Heithaus, S.J. at Mass in St. Francis College Church on February 11 of that same year.
St. Louis was by no means a post-racial utopia, the reality of racial division being omnipresent even to this day. Yet, there was always a genuine compatibility between the races with prominent black St. Louisans revered by all, be they in the media or Busch Stadium. The appointed head of the City’s police commission, a black American, was a revered labor and community leader with whom my father had the pleasure to serve. St. Louis did have a small remnant of the White Citizens Council that only gained some purchase during the most controversial days of court-ordered busing.
I never recall any major civil disturbances as a child, teenager, or adult (I left town in 1989) even in the case of busing. During high school and college, I worked at a light manufacturing plant on the north side and often hitch-hiked home through black neighborhoods after work with nary a problem. Indeed, the supposed high incidence of crime and murder in St. Louis is partly an artifact of the town’s small geographic size. St. Louis City and St. Louis County are two separate county-level entities. This was by design of the City fathers, who did not want any responsibility for what was, in the past, a rural area in the County. However, today, most of the population and money is in the County. The City has a population of only 318,416 with a poverty rate of 27 percent. The County has a population of a million with about 15 percent below the poverty level. The City is now disproportionately poor and black except for the south end of town, especially the southwest, and the Central West End, a trendy, gentrified area around Forest Park and the massive Barnes hospital complex.
Rudy Giuliani offered his no-nonsense advice on how the riots in Ferguson could have been avoided. I paraphrase the Mayor. You can protest. You can scream. But throw a can or mess with a police car, you get handcuffed and go to jail. His suggestion that there should have been two or three times as many police available for rapid deployment makes sense but may have been outside the conceptual framework of most St. Louisans. The Mayor is from a metropolis, New York City, with a law enforcement contingent larger than the armed forces of Canada. Ferguson is a suburban community, one of 90 in St. Louis County. So given the divide between state and local government, City and County, and the County and dozens of municipalities, calling this situation “Balkanized” would be an understatement. And it is political suicide for an elected County or municipal official to call for any kind of consolidation of City and County or even consolidation of County municipalities that cherish their independence.
I cannot deny that opposition to City-County consolidation is driven, in large part, by both class and race, the relative absence of which probably allowed former Senator Richard Lugar to achieve some consolidation in Indianapolis when he was mayor of that fine city. So the social, economic, and racial divide leaves the City of St. Louis with a dwindling population, a few selected functioning neighborhoods, such as The Hill where Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola grew up, and a Downtown with popular sports venues.
But it is hard to see how any reorganization of local government would have had an impact on the sad events that transpired in Ferguson, which is not in the City but the County. Also, state and local officials had set up a centralized law enforcement command center that, despite this or that decision we might criticize, seemed to function pretty well.
Ferguson has seen a speedy change in its racial character, in part, some claim, because of too large an infusion of public housing into the neighborhoods, suspect zoning practices, and the like. This, in turn, left its police force in a bit of a time warp and a largely white contingent. But is this really unique to Ferguson? Current thinking among progressives — liberals, civil rights leaders, the media — seems to follow the French rule when it comes to law enforcement in black communities: guilty until proven innocent. Actually, their view is, simply, guilty as charged. The demonization of the local prosecutor is really a monstrous injustice. For a short time I practiced in the same law firm with Bob McCulloch, the St. Louis County Prosecutor, who has served as an elected prosecutor in St. Louis County since 1991, winning most elections with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. How strange a nation we have become when, having your father killed in the line of duty, and devoting yourself to public service and safety, calls down upon you an avalanche of abuse and vilification after making a tough call in a case where the evidence never rose to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
What is most troubling about this matter, as with other incidents over the years, is the inability to honestly discuss fundamental social issues facing the black community without someone playing the race, or should I say, the racist card. Out-of-wedlock births? Teenage boys without fathers in the home? Black-on-black crime? Percentage of crimes committed by black Americans? These are fundamental problems that will continue to impede social and economic progress in the black community and the nation as a whole. They are, no doubt, compounded by the changing world economy that has eliminated entry-level jobs for workers of all races. But education is the key to the new economy, and family strength is a fundamental contributor to academic success. Stifling this conversation is worse than a crime. It is a mistake.
Whether they realize it or not, from the progressives’ or liberals’ perspective, and despite the short-term rage and media visibility they are generating, this entire tragedy, especially the violent response to it, is a big setback. There is little good that will come of it either in Ferguson or the nation. We are left only with more racial polarization in which the real victims are black more than white.
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