Jaco: How free-market capitalism and racism wrecked St. Louis

The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis isn’t necessarily racist. But they represent a lot of people who are. One person who’s part of the League told me “A lot of people here hate the City.”

To be fair, not all of the County towns that make up the Muni League are full of white flight refugees. But many are. “Refugees” here is correct, since that’s how many white people in the County see their families. Tales are told over Budweisers of how Dad or Gramps or great-Grandpa lived in Baden or The Ville and were driven out by lawless dusky hordes.

While the truth is most of their ancestors left North St. Louis back in the day because a black family moved in three blocks over, the myth is that their families were the Caucasian equivalent of the Palestinians or Bosnians, forced from their homes by an armed enemy. The power of that persecution fable in the St. Louis suburbs explains their rock-hard animosity toward the City, and its black residents.

It also explains their dug-in opposition to any merger, unification, or handshake agreement between the County and the City, and why the Better Together group’s proposal to unify the City and County into one huge 1.3 million population “metro city” sets their hair afire. University of Iowa professor Colin Gordon’s 2008 book about St. Louis’s self-destruction, “Mapping Decline”, has racism as it’s central focus. Gordon has said that white residents of St. Louis hated blacks so much that they would rather destroy their own city than see it fall into black hands. And they did just that.

You can see clearly where the problem lies by looking at the NY Times 2018 interactive map, precinct by precinct, showing which areas voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016. Since precincts have between 300 and 1,500 people, the map’s pretty granular, showing that places in St. Louis County ranging from wealthy to hoosier, from Ladue and Wildwood, to Valley Park and Fenton, to Bridgeton and Ballwin, voted for Trump. And you have to figure that when a candidate presents himself plainly as a racist white nationalist, anyone who votes for him shares those beliefs.

Racism explains why so many St. Louis Countians oppose any unification plan. It also explains why the City has seen a rate of population loss and physical destruction almost unmatched in North American history. But it’s far from the whole story. What used to be a major American city was also hollowed out by supposedly color-blind free market capitalism.

A stunning 2016 article in Washington Monthly magazine by Washington University grad and economic researcher Brian S. Feldman makes the case pretty clearly that the free-market fetish that infected U.S. politics and economics starting in the Reagan era removed the economic heart from St. Louis with surgical precision, piece by piece, over decades, at the same time white flight and disinvestment was hollowing out the city’s population and leaving half of its people, on the North Side, living in what looks like 1945 Berlin after the Allied Air Forces got through with it. The difference, of course, is that Berlin was rebuilt.

Feldman points out that, in 1979, average per capita income in St. Louis was 89 percent that of New York, and that 23 percent of the City’s residents had college or graduate degrees, double the national average. But then came the conservative economists who thought everything should be deregulated, and that making the rich richer would have a trickle-down effect to the little guy. Those cynical lies destroyed St. Louis.

Airline de-regulation, bank re-regulation, the Reagan rollback of anti-trust rules, and the growth of behemoth multi-national corporations gutted St. Louis employment. De-regulation, the Flight 800 explosion, and 9/11 destroyed TWA. Boatman’s and other local banks were swallowed whole. McDonnell-Douglas was eaten by Boeing. Stix, Famous, Central Hardware, and other St. Louis retail disappeared. Southwestern Bell, now Verizon, moved to Texas.

Ralston-Purina was bought by Nestle, huge advertising firms were purchased and downsized or closed, A-B was snatched by the Brazilians and Belgians, Monsanto was eaten by Bayer, and the Great Recession, caused by Wall Street money manipulators, cost the area 50,000 jobs. The Hazelwood Ford and Fenton Chrysler plants became weedy asphalt lots.

St. Louis went from a headquarters to a middle-management town. Jobs and opportunity vaporized. And it was all done in the name of free-market economics, letting mega-business do whatever it wanted.

So racism began the downward slide. But it took free-market economics to finish the job. And both are alive and well in big parts of the County populated by people who despise Democrats, minorities, liberals, and the City of St. Louis.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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