Poor racial relations in St. Louis suburbs have origin in "white flight"

DonellProbst-01The pathology of racism in America has long been a product of the unending, systematic segregation of minority communities to the most undesirable corners of society.

On the surface, Ferguson, Missouri, seems like any other impoverished, fringe suburb with its crumbling infrastructure, elevated unemployment rates and inadequate educational systems. However, St. Louis has a unique history of segregation that places blame directly on the Caucasian-Americans who chose to flee the city, leaving a dynamic of separation and racism behind.

Despite the fact that much of St. Louis appears to be an antiquated version of mid-century America many would prefer to leave in the past, the segregation of St. Louis’ communities is not simply a residual effect of a bygone era, but instead a process which has endured the test of time, gaining alarming momentum over the past three decades.

As early as the 1930s, segregation pervaded every corner of America with the establishment of discriminatory housing practices such as “residential security maps.” This process attempted to identify minority communities as poor credit risks by “red-lining” their neighborhoods on a map for use by mortgage and credit lenders.

The infamous “restrictive covenants” of the 1940s sought to protect established white neighborhoods from “red-lining” by blocking developers, realtors, and residents from selling property to “high risk” buyers, making it impossible for minorities to move into or out of more desirable areas in and around St. Louis.

As white families moved farther into the undeveloped suburbs of St. Louis in their attempt to escape the growing diversity of St. Louis and its adjacent suburbs, they began establishing discriminatory zoning policies such as large lot requirements and bans on apartment buildings, all but explicitly preventing lower income, minority families from moving into their neighborhoods.

As much of the country made efforts to move past segregation after the Civil Rights movement, St. Louis seemingly doubled its efforts to avoid integration. The rate of “white flight,” the phenomenon of white residents moving away from areas with growing minority populations, increased dramatically. As black populations rose in communities like Ferguson, the white population declined at an equal, often more accelerated rate.

In 1980, approximately 85 percent of the population of Ferguson, Missouri was white, while only 14 percent of the community was black. Just 30 years later in 2010, a shift in demographics occurred, showing only 29 percent of the population was white, while 69 percent was black.

Of course, segregated communities are often associated with cultural pride. In many large metropolitan cities, communities naturally segregate along varied cultural lines, seeking out fellow residents who celebrate similar cultural histories, values, and traditions. Investigation of recent migration patterns of both white and black residents of St. Louis, Missouri tells a very different story.

At times when both racial and economic diversity was critical to the success of integrated communities, white residents of St. Louis repeatedly abandoned ship, intentionally alienating black residents and leaving a destructive path of crumbling communities like Ferguson in their wake.

Reach the columnist at donnellprobst@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @DonnellProbst

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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