I haven’t said anything on social media or the blog about the crisis in Ferguson until now. I lived in St. Louis for 16 years (in Clayton and University City, to be exact), and as a historian, you would think I could say something relevant about the matter. But I’m torn. On the one hand, yes, I have opinions on the underlying, everyday crisis faced by black St. Louisans that I saw when I lived there but never had to live myself. On the other, a lot of good words have already been written. Much has been put in perspective. You don’t have to search far to find smart things to read regarding the events in Missouri, and I don’t claim any special knowledge or expertise from having lived there. It isn’t a surprise that this shooting and its aftermath happened there. But then again, it wouldn’t have surprised me if it had happened anywhere else. I’m now living just south of South Central, after all. The Rodney King episode in our country’s anguished history wasn’t that long ago. And neither was the Oscar Brown chapter. Or Trayvon Martin.
This is about all I can say, and I’m saying it because I think my job as an American historian and my status as a concerned citizen demand it. Blue Notes in Black and White is, after all, about race as much as it is about photography or jazz (“Photography, Race, and the Image of Jazz” was the original subtitle). Judging from comments attached to news articles and blog posts and by a recent New York Times/CBS poll, whites and blacks have dramatically different views on the race question these days. A problem seems to be confusion in terminology and language that has two groups talking past each other to a remarkable degree. As the notion of white privilege—the idea that whiteness offers protections and advantages on an inherently uneven playing field whose structures were built in a time of legalized racial inequality and discrimination—has seeped from the academy where I now reside to the culture at large, words have come to mean what people want them to mean, to paraphrase Alice. The very idea that whites can respond to the notion of structural racism by claiming that they themselves are not racist and that those who talk about race are in fact the racists makes me feel like I am falling down the rabbit hole.
We can’t even agree that racism is much more than particular, individual acts of discrimination or loosely prejudicial thinking or dressing up in a Klan costume. This limited view of racism, in which those who claim to be working to eradicate racism are categorized as the true racists, excuses anyone who fails to dump mustard on the head of a black person at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. It isn’t 1960 anymore, but the defensive statements I read make me wonder how far we’ve really come. Whites have appropriated Martin Luther King’s rhetoric (especially the “content of their character” phrase from the “I Have a Dream” speech) to drape themselves in a comforting shawl of racial tolerance and purported colorblindness. It allows them to sit in judgment on the race question—narrowing the definition of discrimination to individual, isolated acts and reinforcing the power of institutions such as the police force and the justice and incarceration systems.
This is in part a failure of journalism. Those charged with reporting and analyzing the news apparently haven’t thought very deeply about what it is they are actually describing. The very institutions for which they work are so dependent on older definitions of racism that to call it by its true name—and thus implicate every white person in the country—is unthinkable, inadmissible. “Can we all just get along?” Rodney King famously asked. As long as the media continues to function as though being polite to each other—desirable as that is—is the ultimate and hard-to-obtain outcome, we’ll continue to have trouble making sense of events such as Ferguson and whatever will happen in a few more weeks or months.
We got a glimmer of how institutional racism works in 2005 with the flood of New Orleans. “Why didn’t the people just get in their cars and leave the Lower Ninth? Why would they live in vulnerable area below sea level?” The assumption that those most threatened by environmental catastrophe worked from the same menu of choices that middle-class America did was breathtaking. And we remember the difference between “people getting supplies to survive” and “looters.” There were voluble and passionate analyses of these issues in the academic world but very little beyond that traced the history of segregation and its long-term effects.
Up the Mississippi, St. Louis used to be the fourth-largest city in the country. A century ago, it was one of the many US cities trying to clean up its sullied political reputation (it had been indicted in muckraker Lincoln Steffens’s Shame of the Cities) and worked to renew itself through City Beautiful urban planning and progressive political reform. Boulevards, parks, and new public works would make the city more livable, and initiative reform would give the people a chance at direct legislation, bypassing the potential corruption of City Hall. And so the good people of St. Louis made their voices heard in their first initiative campaign, which turned out to be a rousing success. It legalized residential segregation based on race.
In 1948, in the landmark Shelley v. Kraemer case, a bundle that included the title case from St. Louis, the United States Supreme Court ruled restrictive covenants, as they are still known, unenforceable. Combined with Brown v. Board of Education a few years later, legalized segregation was on the ropes.
But people will find ways to segregate themselves, and that’s one reason why St. Louis the City—its own political entity—began hemorrhaging citizens, the majority of them white, to St. Louis County. They took their tax dollars with them, and now St. Louis city has an infrastructure to maintain that was built for double the population. And the population has a lower median income and depends on expensive social services as well. The old story is that an abandoned brick house in St. Louis sometimes disappears overnight, its bricks spirited away for reuse by fair means or foul for a rehab job in Denver or some other place beyond the reach of local authority. You don’t have to go far in north St. Louis to believe it.
Ferguson is known as an “inner ring” suburb of St. Louis—towns adjacent to the city line on the edge of the county. When cheap, dense housing became available there, many black St Louisans crossed the line and left the city proper. As we have seen, the economic prospects for those folks have dwindled. As real wages nationwide have stagnated, as unemployment has become a permanent part of many peoples’ lives, as home ownership has become ever more elusive, and as desperation has replaced hope, black citizens of Ferguson have essentially been cut off from the rest of America. In fact, the police some time ago closed off all but one street leading to the major apartment complexes on the southeast side of town.
Back to white privilege. It is a luxury to suggest that all people have to do is make better choices. Choices are not made in a vacuum, without context. It is all well and good to tell others to make better choices when the conditions under which they are making those choices would come as a kind of nightmare to those naively going through life having never once even thought about the possibility of being stopped by the police simply because of their color. This is the point about white privilege—it means you can trust the system to do its work. You know this is true, because the system works for you. If it works for you, it must be a just system. If nothing else, I hope the past few weeks have forced more people to ask what fairness really is and why the protest of the Michael Brown shooting is about more than that terrible incident. I hope it also has shown people like Chief Justice John Roberts that race may not be a fact of biology but it is very much a fact of life as it is lived in this country.
This is hard stuff and nothing I am saying is new. I don’t have prescriptions. Conveniently, I study the past. But I do think that until we agree on what the terms mean, that ever-elusive “national conversation on race” is never going to get to point one. And it won’t get to point two until white Americans begin to acknowledge that white privilege is not about guilt over slavery and Jim Crow and does not impugn their own ideas about individual equality or paint them as prejudiced—though of course, to some degree everyone is if they admit it. It simply acknowledges the inherited advantages that come with a system that indisputably was not built for people of color and has not fully served them since.
Let’s just stick with the way the laws have viewed race: legally protected enslavement and forced immigration that created inheritable and interest-bearing wealth for white individuals, families, companies, universities, and other institutions throughout the colonies; freedom determined by the condition of the mother; the three-fifths compromise; national origins immigration quotas favoring white northern Europeans; the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (“no rights which the white man was bound to respect”); poll taxes, tissue ballots, and grandfather clauses restricting or eliminating black voting; non-prosecution of whites for thousands of murders via lynching and for the destruction of entire black communities in Oklahoma, Florida, and other locales; restrictive residential covenants; the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from the first Social Security Act; fighting the “good war” against Fascism in segregated units. Enslaved African Americans built the White House, but just because two centuries later Barack Obama won election to the Presidency does not mean that a colorblind society is an achieved fact, despite the Roberts Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act. Ferguson is reminding us of that, and the people of good will who protest show us through their courage that our democratic work-in-progress, what Abraham Lincoln called a “proposition,” continues and that not all hope for a more just society is lost.