Ferguson and the Urban-Suburban Race Conflict

In Ferguson and many towns like it, majority African-American communities most grapple with mostly white county governments. How this leads to dysfunction, racial tension, and a skewed justice system.

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As we watch Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson bumble his way through press conferences, let’s take a couple steps back and think about how this two-thirds African-American town has retained such a nearly complete all-white power structure. It is partly, as Slate noted, a question of voting power, as whites are more entrenched and vote in greater numbers. But there’s a larger story here about race in America that involves the transformation of inner-ring suburbs over the last 30 years, and the response to that transformation, which have combined to create tensions that often rage in the suburban areas that surround our major cities. These tensions are almost wholly about race. Even more specifically, they are often about criminal justice, in ways that we may see play out in St. Louis County when the day arrives that Officer Darren Wilson goes on trial.

This story begins with white flight, which is well known—as blacks moved up to cities in the North from farms in the South at an astonishing rate in the 1950s and ’60s, they moved into inner-city neighborhoods, and the whites moved out. But then, in the 1980s, blacks, along with Hispanics and Asians, started moving out into the ’burbs, too. Affirmative action and public-sector unionization (say what you will about them!) lifted millions of African Americas into the middle class, and they could now afford a car and a garage to put it in.

The good news here: America became a little less segregated. This study by Brown University finds that segregation peaked between 1960 and 1970 and has fallen off, steadily but only gradually, ever since. The “typical white” today lives in a neighborhood that is 75 percent white (that figure was 88 percent 30 years ago). The “typical black” lives in a neighborhood that’s 45 percent black, 35 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, and 4 percent Asian. But segregation scores in many big cities remain high. On a scale where any score above 60 is considered to indicate deep segregation, Detroit and Milwaukee are tied for worst, at 79.6 percent; then comes New York, Newark, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Cleveland, and, in ninth position, at 70.6 percent, we find St. Louis.

So even as black people pushed their way out into the suburbs, they typically haven’t done so in large enough numbers to gain real political power. This means that while the political power in many cities is in black hands today, whites still tend to run things in the counties within which those cities rest. Thus, one sub-story of the last 20 or so years in America has been a quiet but constant power struggle between municipal and county governments over who has what authority.

Now, St. Louis County and St. Louis the city are a little different from the norm in this regard, since they split into two jurisdictions back in the 1870s, long before anyone was thinking about black political power. In fact, back then it was the city people voting to cut off having to pay for services for the county rubes (the city’s population then was almost exactly what it is today, 318,000; St. Louis County, about 25,000 then, is around 1 million today). Today, I’m sure the city would love to have that tax base.

So St. Louis is different in jurisdictional terms, but on a more emotional level, the same kinds of dramas play out that we see in other American cities that sit within larger counties. These counties have inner-ring and outer-ring suburbs, still further out exurbs, and even a few patches of farmland. Go look at a map of Fulton County, Georgia, which contains Atlanta, and see how large it is. The population of Atlanta is about 443,000. The population of Fulton County as a whole is 977,000, meaning that more than half the people live outside Atlanta proper. The same is true in Wayne County, Michigan, where about 700,000 live in Detroit but 1.1 million outside of it; in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where 390,000 live in Cleveland and 875,000 outside of it; and dramatically so in Miami-Dade County, where 2.2 million live outside Miami and just 410,000 in it. Not every major American city is like this, but it’s fair to say that most are in similar situations.

This creates a fierce political competition between city and county governments and within county governments. Cities dominated their counties for decades, but no longer. The cold war—it’s hard to call it anything less—between north Fulton County (white) and south Fulton County (black) is legendary. The MARTA rail system, which started running 35 years ago and was from the very earliest planning phases, 10 years before that, designed to run up to north Fulton County and out into Cobb and Gwinnett and other regional counties, is only now just starting to inch its way up to north Fulton. People can make whatever excuses they want, but this two-generation delay has been almost entirely about race.

Now let’s get to the matter at hand in Ferguson: criminal justice. The specific issue is that juries in the United States are drawn from county-wide population pools. This means, as the criminologist William Stuntz has observed, that people from large counties with exurbs and farms are often sitting in judgment of urban kids. Stuntz was a conservative, but an apostate who came to believe that the American criminal justice system was pretty much hopelessly racist. In his last book before his death, The Collapse of the American Justice System, he noted that “counties that include major cities have a much higher percentage of suburban voters than in the past” and observed that this meant that black kids on trial were far less likely to get a jury that had any understanding of what their lives were like.

So let’s flip that in this case. Will a St. Louis County jury be likely to look sympathetically upon Michael Brown? Quite unlike the two-thirds black Ferguson, the county is 70 percent white. I’ll cast no aspersions on either Officer Wilson, innocent until proven otherwise, or the fine people of St. Louis County. I’ll just say that if William Stuntz were still alive, I have a sense of which outcome he’d be predicting.