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The Jaco Report, Ep. 31: New book explores the role of racism in creating a fragmented St. Louis County

Being a citizen of the United States gives us certain rights: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion. And being a citizen of a city or a town gives us a set of rights that are more mundane but maybe more important in our daily lives: the right to police protection; the right to clean, safe streets; the right to have the trash collected and the sidewalks repaired; the right to decent schools.

It’s those citizenship rights that have been systematically taken away in St. Louis County over the decades, a new book argues, through a set of public policies that culminated with the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson five years ago.

The book, “Citizen Brown: Race, Democracy, and Inequality in the St. Louis Suburbs,” was written by University of Iowa Professor Colin Gordon, whose 2008 book, “Mapping Decline,” traced the collapse of the city of St. Louis to almost a century’s worth of racist decisions that led to destructive public policies and created a whirlwind of local interest when it came out more than a decade ago.

Appearing on “The Jaco Report,” Gordon said the fragmentation of St. Louis County into 88 small towns was mostly an exercise in racial politics that began with restrictive deeds designed to make sure homes were never sold to African-Americans. After those so-called restrictive covenants were declared illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court (in a case from St. Louis city), the towns turned to zoning to make sure single-family homes remained out of the reach of most black families. And when segregationist zoning laws were ruled illegal, towns turned to the police to “control” the black population.

“As zoning sort of starts to lose its power and there’s a big transition in North County, other institutions of local government take over the work of enforcing segregation,” Gordon noted. “That job fell particularly to the police, and that’s in large part what led to the confrontation between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.”

Gordon’s book, by tracing decades’ worth of housing patterns, laws and real estate restrictions, concludes that this wasn’t some mistake in the organization of St. Louis County. Discrimination was a feature, not a bug.

“The fragmentation of small towns in St. Louis County and the fragmented governments was and remains a segregationist project,” he said. “They exist largely in service of sorting the population by race and class. There are in fact a large number of small communities in St. Louis County that provide almost no services. They don’t pick up the garbage. They don’t plow the streets.”

The loss of the basic services attached to city and town citizenship, Gordon concluded, was expressly aimed at blacks in the suburbs.

“For African-American citizens of St Louis County, the services that we expect, like sewers, good schools, that sort of thing, are of a lower quality historically,” Gordon said. He noted that even as civic services were withheld, often-harsh civic enforcement techniques were not.

“The elements of citizenship that are not so welcome – are oppressive – are exaggerated for African-Americans; so policing, code enforcement, that sort of thing, tend to be more stringent and more targeted,” he said.

The civic enforcement that’s most visible and can be the most violent is, of course, the police. And decades of those civic public policy decisions in St. Louis County collided with street reality when Darren Wilson encountered Michael Brown on Canfield Drive on Aug. 9, 2014.

“Police often take the function of controlling the movement of those who are viewed as out of place or a threat,” Gordon said. “And so even in communities like Ferguson, which are now over 50 percent African-American, the largely white police force, especially in the years leading up to the death of Michael Brown, saw their role and were instructed in their role as controlling the behavior of, largely, young African-American males.”

Gordon’s academic specialty has become the racism and dysfunction of St. Louis and St. Louis County. He knows more about the attitudes of St. Louis, and the laws and policies those attitudes shaped, than most people who’ve lived here all their lives.

So when you ask him what that’s positive came out of Mike Brown’s death, the uprisings, the recommendations for change and the public awareness of St. Louis’s racial problems, he offers a list. Good things, he said, include public dialogue, curtailing of municipal courts, reform of police and prosecution, and a heightened public sensitivity to the region’s racial problems.

Then he pauses, and finally says, “Race relations and racial attitudes in St. Louis are really very calcified at a sort of 1940 level.”

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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