The Economic Policy Institute has just released a report by Richard Rothstein that gives some sense of how the world of Michael Brown came to be. It turns out that that world was born from the exact same forces that forged cities and suburbs across the country—racist housing policy at the local, state, and national levels. Rothstein’s report eschews talk of mindless white flight, and black-hearted individual racists, and puts the onus exactly where it belongs:
That governmental actions, not mere private prejudice, were responsible for segregating greater St. Louis was once conventional informed opinion. In 1974, a three-judge panel of the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that “segregated housing in the St. Louis metropolitan area was … in large measure the result of deliberate racial discrimination in the housing market by the real estate industry and by agencies of the federal, state, and local governments.”
Similar observations accurately describe every other large metropolitan area; in St. Louis, the Department of Justice stipulated to this truth but took no action in response. In 1980, a federal court order included an instruction for the state, county, and city governments to devise plans to integrate schools by integrating housing. Public officials ignored this aspect of the order, devising only a voluntary busing plan to integrate schools, but no programs to combat housing segregation.
A lot of what’s here—redlining, housing covenants, blockbusting, etc.—will be well-known to those with a good handle on 20th-century American history. I focused on this particular era in my case for reparations. But it bears constant repeating: The geography of America would be unrecognizable today without the racist social engineering of the mid-20th century. The policy included—but was not limited to—mortgage loans backed by the Federal Housing Authority and the Veteran’s Administration:
At its peak in 1943 when civilian construction was limited, the FHA financed 80 percent of all private home construction nationwide. During the postwar period, it dropped to one-third. But even when subdivisions were not built with advance FHA commitments, individual homebuyers needed access to FHA or VA insured mortgages, so similar standards for new construction pertained. Subdivisions throughout St. Louis County were developed in this way, with FHA advance commitments for the builders and a resulting whites-only sale policy.
The FHA’s suburban whites-only policy continued through the postwar housing boom that lasted through the mid-1960s. In 1947, the FHA sanitized its manual, removing literal race references but still demanding “compatibility among neighborhood occupants” for mortgage guarantees. “Neighborhoods constituted of families that are congenial,” the FHA manual explained, “… generally exhibit strong appeal and stability.” This very slightly sanitized language suggested no change in policy, and the FHA continued to finance builders with open policies of racial exclusion for another 15 years.
In 1959, the United States Commission on Civil Rights concluded that only 2 percent of all FHA-backed loans had gone to blacks. “Most of this housing,” concluded the report, “has been in all-Negro developments in the South.”
As it relates to black America, segregation must always be understood, as a system of plunder. Once the big game has been fenced off, then comes the hunt:
According to a study by the St. Louis nonprofit Better Together, Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns it approaches 50 percent. Municipal reliance on revenue generated from traffic stops adds pressure to make more of them. One town, Sycamore Hills, has stationed a radar-gun-wielding police officer on its 250-foot northbound stretch of Interstate.
With primarily white police forces that rely disproportionately on traffic citation revenue, blacks are pulled over, cited and arrested in numbers far exceeding their population share, according to a recent report from Missouri’s attorney general. In Ferguson last year, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests were of black people—despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22 percent versus 34 percent of whites). This worsens inequality, as struggling blacks do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites.
And this is but one aspect. I strongly suspect that if I talked to some housing attorneys in the region they could tell me a story.