Fear of a Black Suburb
Dr. Walter Greason
26 August 2014
Ferguson, Missouri, is not a city, despite many misstatements to that effect over the last few weeks. It is a suburb – a residential community on the fringe of a larger urban center. In regional context, Ferguson represents a pronounced, generational shift that reflects institutional patterns of metropolitan development and racial wealth disparities. As federal housing lending policies adapted to the creation of a consumer, working-class as part of a global service economy, Ferguson shifted from a mostly rural, white community before 1980 to a lower-middle class, black suburban community today.
Yes, there are black suburbs besides Prince George’s County, Maryland. Arnold Hirsch examined many of these places in his classic book, “The Making of the Second Ghetto.” More recently, Andrew Wiese extended the history of these communities in his work, “Places of Their Own.” Mary Patillo’s “Black on the Block” contributes additional, invaluable insights about how the political economy of racial segregation in large cities has been used as a template for small towns across the country. Still, nearly all of the experts on these subjects use the “city” as the frame of reference to understand communities like Ferguson. In doing so, they fundamentally misunderstand the culture of small towns and the residents who choose them.
The variety of suburbs around the world defy easy classification. Ferguson has experienced a process that differs sharply from a town like Manalapan, New Jersey, where low-income African American farm workers were systematically removed from their homes (and the historical record) between 1960 and 1970 to make room for huge regional malls and thousands of McMansions for the emerging class of global financiers since 1980. Ferguson’s white families have fled into neighboring, exurban communities as far away as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Omaha, leaving the township in St. Louis county for aspiring, African American families who wanted to escape the worst areas in the City of St. Louis.
Similar patterns have unfolded in metropolitan Oakland, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. In Philadelphia, communities like Yeadon, Darby, Norristown, and Bensalem face the same tensions and political discontent that has exploded in Ferguson. Places from Mt. Vernon to Westbury across metropolitan New York struggle with the same questions about effective political representation and the absence of accountability with local law enforcement. In New Jersey, Asbury Park, Long Branch, Red Bank, Montclair, Cherry Hill, and New Brunswick have grappled with these problems for more than fifty years. The United States has been a suburban nation for more than twenty years, and the fragmentation of local government has only obstructed the process of democratic engagement during that time.
The public cost of these systemic crises rises into the trillions of dollars. Wasted funds in law enforcement, school districts, county executives, and municipal councils reflect the absence of a consistent conversation to end inequality and build cohesive community on a daily basis. Online groups like Ferguson Solidarity and St. Louis Mosaic provide an opportunity for everyone to discuss how to bring funding, leadership, and widespread participation together to dismantle the police state that claimed another life in the shooting of Michael Brown. Emerging public figures like Antonio French have a responsibility to connect the local issues in Ferguson to the informed and effective solutions activists and academics have developed in the last decade.
Healthy, wealthy communities can be built from the ashes of police brutality and ineffective suburban governance. Monmouth University will host a series of conversations on these topics in April 2015. Please send your proposals and inquiries to Professor Hettie Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org .
Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and wrote “Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey.” His work is available on Twitter (@worldprofessor1 / @icmgrowth), Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (email@example.com).