Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Oct. 30, 2014 Volume 36, No. 10

Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative speaker discusses decades of St. Louis segregation

Public policy decisions created the conditions that contributed to Ferguson’s race relations, speaker says

GordonAnalyses of the Aug. 9 shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer have focused on current race relations in the St. Louis region.

In a lecture sponsored by the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, Colin Gordon, a history professor at the University of Iowa, stepped back to examine St. Louis’ public policy over the last century that he argues exacerbated segregation. In his view, the ongoing protests in Ferguson are about more than the shooting of Michael Brown on a city road.

Gordon spoke to a packed room in Neff Hall about the influence of public policy on creating segregated St. Louis neighborhoods, where white communities prospered and black communities withered.

When the Ferguson shooting became national news, Gordon was suddenly in high demand as a commentator. In 2008, he published the book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). In it he chronicled how zoning laws concentrated blacks in certain St. Louis downtown areas, while whites moved to the suburbs where municipalities adopted rules to keep blacks out.

“Zoning was used to manage segregation,” Gordon said in the lecture.

In the 1950s, federal money poured in to municipalities for urban renewal. But officials used the money to rezone black areas for commercial use, such as building Busch Stadium, and funnel money to white neighborhoods, Gordon said. “The federal money goes to local authorities who use it to remove blacks from white areas,” he said.

Officials also devalued real estate owned by blacks, a blow to their building equity.

Since blacks were excluded from white neighborhoods and pushed out of existing neighborhoods due to zoning laws, they resettled in places like Ferguson, designated by white leaders as a black community, which for decades was starved of federal funding.

Struggling for revenue because it’s a small municipality (6 square miles), Ferguson collects a quarter to one-third of its operating funds through writing petty tickets, such as for jaywalking, Gordon said. This practice pits police, who are mostly white, against citizens, who are mostly black. “The police are the most stable revenue generator” of the city, Gordon said.

The indirect cause of Ferguson race relations comes from decades of segregation and fiscal unfairness in the St. Louis area, he said.