St. Louis, MO.
I live in a city that is significantly divided between blacks and whites. The division and living in such homogenous communities is one of the strongest reasons why racism, both subtle and overt, continue today. This project inspired a deep look into this issue and was the inspiration for an essay on the topic entitled:
Redlining to Ferguson: Why Racism Persists in St. Louis
BY JACK KIEHL
“White neighborhood made me subconscious racist,” wrote Joe Earsom for his submission to the Race Card Project, a project founded by former NPR host Michele Norris that encourages people to submit six-word sentences on their experiences with race. Earsom, who grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, explained his six words on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, noting that his childhood in a very homogenous suburb and education in a largely all-white Catholic elementary and high school meant “no day-to-day encounters with anyone of a different race for a long time” (“‘Race Cards’: Six Words on Trayvon Martin’s Death”). As Earsom explains, after growing up hearing about the dangers of St. Louis city, seeing the sensationalized violence in media, and not being around residents of a different ethnic or racial background from him, he formulated what he calls “subconscious racism in the way [he] looked at random people on the street,” such as feeling anxious around groups of black teenagers at the mall or tensing up when a black man steps into an elevator (“‘Race Cards’: Six Words on Trayvon Martin’s Death”).
I’ve listened to this episode of Talk of the Nation a few times since I first heard it just over a year ago, and every time I do I feel it rings more true. I, too, have seen the subconscious racism that persists among white St. Louis-area residents, but what Earsom’s six-words can’t adequately explain is the long history of segregation that created this white-black divide. Like Earsom, I grew up in a suburb of St. Louis that is predominately white. I’ve never seen an African American family living in my neighborhood or in any of the surrounding neighborhoods. In fact, according to the United States Census Bureau, the city of Ladue, where I live, had a 2010 population of 8,521 with only 1.0% of the population being black (“State & County QuickFacts Ladue (city)”). Certainly, there may be refutations that this is not representative of the entire region. Yet, large portions of suburban St. Louis do have some significant form of racial disparity, a fact that was accentuated and documented following the shooting of Mike Brown in 2014 and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, a city that is just fifteen minutes from my house with a black population of 67.4%, according to the 2010 census (“State & County QuickFacts Ferguson (city)”). Just a few miles on the highway can bring one from a city with almost no African American population to what became the epicenter of 2014 racial unrest in the United States. This drastic divide in racial demographics, which exists across the St. Louis metropolitan area as a result of systemic redlining and decades of white flight, has vivified racial stereotypes and misperceptions among residents who, in most circumstances, have little significant, extensive contact with a race different from their own.
For many suburban St. Louisans (myself included), Earsom’s six words are an incredibly accurate representation of our collective experiences, whether we realize it or not. I went to a small Catholic grade school that had maybe two African Americans total at the time of my graduation. I went to the same high school Earsom graduated from and I remember a priest once telling me that, out of around 1100 students, only about 80 of them were black. St. Louis is known for its large single-gender Catholic high school system and those of whom I know in this system have very similar experiences: they grow up in the county, attend a local Catholic grade school, and attend a sizeable Catholic high school. My high school was in the city of St. Louis and, in comparison to other schools, there were more black students, yet to call it diverse would be inaccurate. And I don’t mean to focus solely on private schools; that’s just my personal experience. Local public schools, however, aren’t much different: most are either predominantly white or black. Some of the three best school districts in the area have a largely white student population: Kirkwood with 93.2%, Ladue with 84.6%, and Clayton with 81.3%. All three have black or African American student percentages in the single digits with Ladue and Clayton having significant Asian populations. Normandy, the high school where Mike Brown graduated from and a notoriously failing school district, has a student demographic breakdown across the district of 14.1% white and 83.3% black (“Missouri School District”). In fact, all but four of the 23 school districts in St. Louis City and County have a student population that was at least 74% black or white. In 17 of these schools, the majority-race percentage was in the eighties or nineties (“Missouri School District”). So when Earsom says we grow up homogenized, it’s quite accurate, and this can have significant negative effects on residents of the St. Louis metropolitan area. But first, to understand why people can live five minutes from a city that’s 49.2% black and have little to no significant encounters with a black population, one has to look at the history of segregation in St. Louis (“State & County QuickFacts St. Louis (city)”).
One of the most fascinating aspects of St. Louis demographics is the segregatory phenomenon known as the “Delmar Divide.” Named for Delmar Boulevard which runs east and west across St. Louis, the street garnered the title because it does just what its name implies: it divides the city between blacks and whites. The BBC produced a short documentary on the divide, showing the area just south of the street and its million-dollar mansions. BBC’s Franz Strasser, who narrates the video, points out that just across the street, you have economically “entered the twilight zone” (Strasser). According to the BBC, the median home value directly north of Delmar is $73,000. In the area just two blocks south, the median home value is $335,000. North of Delmar, the median household income is $18,000. South, the median income is over two and a half times that. On the south side, seven in ten residents have Bachelor’s Degrees, while on the south, it’s one in ten. What is perhaps most striking about this divide is that the area south of Delmar is 73% white; north, the area is 98% African American (Strasser).
This stark segregation comes from a process known as redlining. Adolphus Pruitt of the St. Louis American dates the process back to 1935 when the Federal Housing Administration, which was established by the National Housing Act of 1934, asked the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to “create ‘residential security maps’ to indicate the level of security for real-estate investments” (Pruitt). Areas the HOLC deemed worse were outlined in red (thus the term “redlining”) and were ineligible to receive financing. According to Pruitt, this policy meant black residents who lived in these minority neighborhoods could not secure mortgage loans, essentially stagnating the African-American housing market (Pruitt). The segregation was further accentuated through decades of white flight. In the 1940s and 1950s, the white population of St. Louis was mostly centered in the immediate suburbs of St. Louis with blacks mostly constrained to the city. Throughout the decades, as the African American population expanded, whites moved further from the city. From 1950 to 1970, nearly 60% of the white population left St. Louis city, subsequent to a slight migration of African Americans into the city (Gordon). Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and continuing into today, “[t]he wealthier population of St. Louis has always been running from poverty,” according to Lion of the Valley author James Neal Primm (qtd. in Gay). The white population who had originally fled the city kept expanding out into the surrounding metropolitan area. For example, St. Charles County, which is directly adjacent to St. Louis County, has a 90% white population that has grown 12-fold since 1950. And the white residents who stay in the suburbs that have become predominantly black tend to hold positions of authority, becoming the elected officials and making up the municipal police force. Ferguson is one such suburb, and this trend explains why the predominately-black area has a white mayor, a mostly-white city council, and a police force that is only 5% black as of 2014 (Gay). Ferguson itself has had an interesting shift in demographics. The New York Times reported last August that in just the past two decades, the area has gone from 74% white to majority-black as it is today. So through the various segregatory events that occurred throughout the majority of the last century, St. Louis became the divided metropolitan area it is today.
So what did all of this segregation throughout the twentieth century lead to? I could discuss how St. Louis has had its part in the historical timeline of race in the United States from the landmark Dred Scott case to riots in East St. Louis that ended in the death of at least 39 African Americans (Cooperman). But those events have been well-documented (or, in the case of the riots, often swept under the rug and not discussed). I could discuss how the segregation led to what took place in Ferguson following Brown’s death. The media often portrayed the protests that took place in August of 2014 as a response to pure racism. But there is a complex history of segregation and maltreatment that had a large role in the Ferguson unrest. The history is one I could only begin to touch on, let alone understand. What I’d rather discuss is not something people wrote about in newspapers and magazines last year, but instead what I observed frequently regarding race in my own metropolitan area. The New Yorker cover from last December of a broken Arch and a skyline divided by black and white is accurate and, while claims that St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in America may be true, I never hear about what effects this segregation has on its residents.
I live just south of the infamous Delmar divide and it’s one of my favorite streets. One section of Delmar, known as the “Delmar Loop,” has some of the best restaurants, stores, and music venues in St. Louis. I’ve never felt unsafe on this street; my friends who live nearby and I have gone innumerous times. Yet, I have friends who live further in the county in areas where the white population of the neighborhood and all of the neighborhoods within a twenty mile radius may hover close to 100% white who would never want to go. Writer John Wright said in an interview with St. Louis Magazine that there are still “people who won’t even go to Forest Park—they read somewhere that someone got raped in 1901” (qtd. in Cooperman). In her article in St. Louis Magazine, Jeannette Cooperman writes of residents who live in south St. Louis (a predominately white area) who have “never been north of 40” and of young girls who are warned never to go to the east side (Cooperman). There’s a cycle that starts to formulate with the segregation of whites and blacks. As I have mentioned, a significant number of St. Louis area municipalities tend to be either significantly black or significantly white. If I were to stay in Ladue, the number of African Americans I would encounter would be relatively few. Already there is great disparity between white and black St. Louis. There are large areas of St. Louis where African Americans live en masse. These areas tend to be high poverty and high crime and, growing up, I remember hearing about those areas only for their high crime rate. So, we St. Louisans easily become sequestered from these areas and the disparity expands. Cooperman writes that many of the decisions that shape our metro area are justified by masquerading the fear of race behind a fear of crime. This fear decided where St. Louis’s light-rail public transportation system, the MetroLink, stopped because outer suburban areas didn’t want “crime” coming into their neighborhoods. It was the reason a public housing project wasn’t moved to South County (Cooperman). It’s why I have friends that don’t want to go to the Delmar Loop or won’t go to Forest Park at night. We hear of dangers the area may have had many years ago or of a solitary incident of crime common in any urban environment and don’t want to take the risk. Our segregated city keeps us homogenous and our fear keeps us from meeting St. Louisans different than ourselves, a fear that is perpetuated by the fact we’ve never really experienced diversity. Our stereotypes and racial misperceptions persist and we can get stuck. And this dates back to the redlining and segregation that took place decades ago, yet while we can’t easily change the racial demographics, we can try and fix the lasting effects these old housing policies have on us. So what do we do?
In his interview on NPR, Norris and former Talk of the Nation host Neal Cohan asked Earson how to combat these unwanted subconscious perceptions of other races. Earsom’s solution is to remind yourself how inaccurate your perceptions are, to imagine yourself “in the other person’s shoes, as cliché as that sounds,” and to put yourself in different situations with residents of a different background than what you are familiar with (“‘Race Cards’: Six Words on Trayvon Martin’s Death”). But Earsom is in a position different from many other St. Louisans as he wants to change his perceptions. Not everyone will be so active. So, first, for those who are passive in this issue, there needs to be greater education and awareness as to St. Louis’s current segregatory system. St. Louisans need to think of largely African-American areas not solely as areas of high-crime and the areas need to stop being portrayed solely as such. Most of all, as Earsom said, St. Louisans need to make an effort. If you live in a predominately white area, spend a day exploring the shops in Ferguson. If you live deep in the county, drive around and enjoy the architecture in some of the oldest parts of the city. The effects of 20th century housing may persist for years to come, but we can do what we can to not let that divide us. St. Louis may have once had borders determining where you can live, but we don’t have borders determining where you can go. And when we acknowledge these racial misperceptions and try to counter them by not being complacent with these boundaries, only then will things begin to change.
Cooperman, Jeanette. “Race in St. Louis: The Color Line.” St. Louis Magazine. St. Louis Magazine, 17 Oct. 2014. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.
Gay, Malcolm. “White Flight and White Power in St. Louis.” Time. Time Inc., 13 Aug. 2014. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.
Gordon, Colin. “St. Louis and the American City.” Mapping Decline. University of Iowa, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
“Missouri School District Demographic Profiles.” Proximity One. Proximity, n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2016.
Pruitt, Adolphus. “Redlining continues in black neighborhoods.” St. Louis American. St. Louis American, 9 Oct. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
“‘Race Cards’: Six Words on Trayvon Martin’s Death.” Talk of the Nation. NPR. 22 March 2012. Radio. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.
Smith, Jeff. “In Ferguson, Black Town, White Power.” The New York Times. New York Times Company, 17 Aug. 2o14. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
“State & County QuickFacts.” United States Census Bureau. United States Census Bureau, 14 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Strasser, Franz. “Crossing a St Louis street that divides communities.” Online video clip. BBC. BBC, 14 March 2012. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.