I'm from St. Louis. St. Louis County, nowhere close to Ferguson, but a suburb with its own history of segregation, white flight and educational disparities. This past year, I prepared my geography students for a field trip to St. Louis by inviting Colin Gordon, author of the terrific book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, to speak on campus here. Gordon, a historian who uses maps more effectively than a lot of geographers, shows us how racist housing policies, white flight and fragmented government contributed to St. Louis' decline course of the 20th century. It's not a big stretch to see the intense segregation and marginalization in north St. Louis County as the foundation of the anger and mistrust toward the authorities felt by Ferguson residents, a point a number of journalists have made since Mike Brown was killed on Saturday (see Wonkblog, The New York Times, the Post-Dispatch for just a few examples).
Even though I understand the causes of the event in Ferguson, I have been shocked to watch it unfold on Twitter and the news over the past four days. I'm shocked that a teenager was killed by a police officer in broad daylight. I'm shocked that the police rolled in with military gear to confront grieving (and rightfully angry) protesters. I'm shocked that the streets of Ferguson look like Bolivia, a country where I've done fieldwork and has a terrible history of military and police abuse towards protesters. I'm sure what St. Louis can do to make this right, especially given the outrageous response of the local police and the MIA Missouri governor so far, but it's clear that we need a new approach to urban policy. We need to start connecting extreme educational disparities (including Normandy School District, right next to Ferguson), the criminalization of young African American men, the drug war and the militarization of police departments, and the history of racial segregation and dispossession to what is actually happening in our cities and suburbs. A good place to start confronting this history is Ta-Nehisi Coates' provocative piece, "The Case for Reparations", and some of the terrific books in his narrative bibliography. There are no easy solutions in these accounts, but the events in Ferguson this week demonstrate that things aren't going to get better just by putting our heads in the sand and ignoring the past.