Recently (March 2012), St. Louis, Missouri was profiled by the BBC as one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Their story, which was a kind of “person-on-the-street” take on segregation, featured interviews with people who resided on opposite sides of the city’s historical line of racial segregation, its redline. You can find the story here. This story, plus a documentary I watched recently, got me thinking about my experiences growing up in St. Louis. It is almost certain that my experiences in a city full of racial strife and uncomfortable stereotypes led me to the career I have today. Without the tangible feelings of racial disharmony I encountered as I grew up I would not be as interested as I am today in making the structures that produce these feelings crumble to the ground.
But before we get to my own feelings, you need to know more about St. Louis’s racial present. Would a picture help?
Below this paragraph is a wonderful graphic created by Eric Fischer showing how St. Louis, MO is currently racially distributed. The red dots are groups of 25 white people and the blue dots are groups of 25 black people. You can almost see exactly where the de facto segregation red line (Delmar Blvd) was by looking at the hard line where the blue dots stop being predominant and the red dots become the norm. The long white strip in the middle is the Mississippi river, and the section on the right is technically Illinois, where the infamous East St. Louis resides.
If you click on the map, it will take you to Fischer’s page, where you can identify the different neighborhoods of St. Louis (a very cool feature for those of us familiar with the area). As this picture illustrates, St. Louis is a very segregated city with some areas of integration lying mostly in the South City area, a traditionally low-income neighborhood.
Now, my confession: My family is part of the white flight that continuously reproduces this segregated city.
I grew up in Florissant, MO, which resides in a mostly red-dot section of the northern part of Fischer’s map. As I was growing up there were a few black families in my neighborhood and a few black kids at my school, and my brownie troop in particular was very diverse. By the time my little sister, who is 10 years younger than me, went to elementary school those ratios had completely changed. She was one of a few white students in her school and our neighborhood was becoming more African-American by the minute. Now, my mother is an incredibly racially sensitive human being who was very pleased to see my sister get to interact with people different from her, but as we began to be in the minority things started feeling different (of course we never thought about how hard it would be to be a similar black student in a minority when that was the case…). Also, the people moving into the area were taking advantage of bank-encouraged subprime mortgages and in general had a lower income than previous owners, so property values began going down. Since schools are funded through property values and these new students were incredibly behind, having come from the sickeningly dysfunctional St. Louis City Public Schools, the schools just weren’t providing the education that my parents felt my sister needed. So, after the housing bubble burst my parents put their house on the market and vamanos-ed.
There is no doubt in my mind that the people moving into Florissant, and my neighborhood in particular, were wonderful individuals seeking to leave the violence and tenuous nature of inner-city St. Louis. I worked in the St. Louis public school system for a year after college, and I find it admirable that these families were trying to escape that system. However, I also completely understand why my parents left. Since moving to the Maryland Heights area (a still racially diverse yet mostly middle-class) of St. Louis my sister has blossomed. She has become a smart, ambitious, and outgoing young woman. This is not the track she seemed on while at her other school.
So what does this all mean? Is it just unconscious racism that made my parents think that more black students=worse education? Does it matter that their house dropped in value by at least 20,000 in 5 years? Should we have stayed put in order to help make St. Louis a more integrated city?
It’s all so complicated. Sometimes white flight is not about personal racism, but instead about institutional structures. I recently watched the documentary film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which tells the story of a famous housing project in North St. Louis (a very blue-dot area right above the redline). This documentary details, with historical footage and contemporary interviews, how it is that the residents of Pruitt-Igoe viewed the complex and how the rest of St. Louis responded. Woven throughout is a description of how the project came to be and the decisions that resulted in its downfall. What I loved about The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is that it focused on the policy changes that made white flight a desirable move; there were financial benefits to moving so people who wanted to get away from black people had no incentive to get over their racism. Policies designed by the Housing and Urban Development department encouraged the creation of all-white suburbs, a veritable beacon for the plethora of St. Louisans overcome with racism in the 1950s. Finally, Betsy and Robert were free to live in spaces free from African-Americans, places full of people just like themselves.
I think that these policies, written in the 1940s, have made a racially segregated city that continues to segregate itself based not only on outright racism (which St. Louis still has plenty of), but also based on the fact that middle-class people often need the most bang for their buck when educating their children and paying property taxes for a school system that isn’t producing the results you want your child to have just isn’t the best way to spend your hard-earned cash. Unfortunately, the more people make this decision the lower property values get and at some point there is a watershed of benefits vs. costs. I think this is a perfect example of what some theorists call “color-blind racism”, a type of racism wherein people don’t necessarily feel any ill-will towards non-white citizens but still contribute to racist structures solely by doing what is best for themselves.
I don’t think we can fix these structures as individuals, and I am glad that my parents moved to give my sister a better chance at future success and current happiness. What I think St. Louis needs a more structural, permanent change. We can’t count on people making decisions that are bad for themselves but are good for society “at-large”, we have to start making some big changes, start working together to drive St. Louis to a better future, one where it is in NO ONE’S best interest to segregate. Perhaps we start by equalizing school funding throughout all St. Louis counties and not tying each school’s funding to its immediate population’s property values?
But even then, there are always people like my uncle who would rather move to Newt Gingrich’s new colony on the moon than have their money pay for a black child’s education. Suggestions?