Micropolis: Ferguson, a Suburb Like Any Other

In the days since the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., international attention has been focused on the racial divide in this St. Louis suburb.

But Ferguson is hardly an anomaly. It is in fact similar to many communities across America, where white flight has led to poverty, a depleted social infrastructure and a lingering gap between residents of color and the white officials who govern them.

In the 1950s and 60s, the suburbs were overwhelmingly white: pristine enclaves straight out of Mad Men. This mono-culture was maintained through a variety of ways, some of these explicitly racial, others more subtle.

In time, said sociologist Andy Wiese, class became a proxy for race.

Wiese, author of Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the 20th Century, said communities prevented apartment complexes from being built within their borders, as well as affordable housing, and even demanded minimum house sizes.

“They began to lay out zoning regulations which specified minimum lot sizes. Not just a quarter-acre that was common at Levittown, but half-acre, acre-lot subdivisions,” he said.

The point was clear: only wealthy Americans need apply.

“But in an America where only a handful of African Americans were in the upper class, those were in effect de facto racial restrictions, and they were meant as such,” he said.

Eventually, African Americans did move out of the cities in large numbers: half of all Hispanics and blacks now live in suburbs, like Ferguson. But when African Americans moved in, whites moved out, to the exurbs.

Ferguson is now two-thirds black, but the mayor — and five out of six of its council members — are white. As are almost all of its police officers. The median household income in Ferguson is around $37,000, about $10,000 less than the state average. And the local poverty rate is considerably higher: 22 percent versus 15 percent statewide.

The problems in places like Ferguson don't just affect poor black people, but also wealthy ones.

Using 2010 Census data, Brown University sociologist Logan and a colleague looked at suburban households across America: specifically black ones earning over $75,000 dollars and poor white ones earning under $40,000.

“The affluent black household actually lives in a poorer neighborhood than the poor white household,” said Logan, “and this is because of the high degree of segregation by race, and the fact that affluent black households are actually steered towards, [and] end up in less advantaged communities.”

According to Logan, the suburbs that affluent blacks live in have schools with lower test scores, more low-income residents, housing stock with higher vacancy rates, and higher crime rates.

“So even when they've made it, made it in terms of income, you've managed to move to suburbia, but actually you're not doing as well as relatively poor white households.”

America's neighborhoods are more diverse than they used to be. But the rate at which they've integrated is far slower than what Logan expected when he became a researcher in the 1960s.

And it's not just places like St. Louis. In fact, among cities with large black populations, St. Louis has the ninth worst level of segregation. Number one on that list is a tie, between Detroit and Milwaukee. And right behind them is New York City, which is only marginally less segregated than it was in 1980.

“Every decade, I have reason to think, 'Well, things are changing. Opportunities are opening up. The black middle class is expanding. Whites are changing their attitudes,’” said Logan. “In all the survey research it shows they're less resistant to having a black neighbor, and so on. And by golly, we elected a black president. And so, by 2010, you might've thought that we'd see better outcomes than this. But actually the color line turns out to be extremely persistent.”

But some people are more hopeful.

Clement Price, Professor of History at Rutgers University-Newark, is black and grew up at the tail end of segregation. He acknowledges that young people of color are deeply pessimistic about their future, in part because of an economy that hasn’t translated into good jobs for them, and because of deeply-entrenched civil rights issues.

And yet, he said, the media attention surrounding Michael Brown’s death might be seen as a sign.

Perhaps Americans are capable of “looking at tragedy and trying to figure out a way not just to cope with it, but solve it," he said, "and put ourselves as a society, as a nation, as a collective, on a much higher plane.”