In the wake of protests responding to the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, sociologists began building a large body of resources to explain how these events fit into a broader pattern of racial bias in the United States’ criminal justice system. Sociologists for Justice has both a public statement on the matter and a syllabus on source material related to racialized policing. Sociology Toolbox has recent data on racial disparities and militarized police departments in Ferguson and nationwide. In addition to the conversation about racial injustice, Ferguson also calls into question our assumptions about how to maintain public safety.
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I’d always told people I’m from St. Louis. Who knew of Ferguson? As the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death approaches, “Ferguson” is once again emerging as a symbol of a year’s worth of unjustified deaths and the rethinking of police policy and practice.
Ferguson, Missouri is my hometown. My mother’s extended family moved to Ferguson from rural Illinois in the late 1920s. My parents met and married there. Growing up in Ferguson in the 1940s and 1950s, I was surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and a cozy community. My first experience with the Ferguson police was that my aunt, the city clerk, would send a police car if I got sick at school while my mother was at work. My first job was counting parking meter pennies at City Hall.
I no longer have relatives in Ferguson. But I’ve returned many times over the years for reunions, funerals, and just to revisit the city and see how my street and town are doing. The media have given Ferguson extensive coverage in the wake of the Michael Brown killing. They have looked at recent changes in racial composition, but for the most part have not explored Ferguson’s earlier history. In my day Ferguson was a ”sundown town”–by city ordinance no blacks after 9 p.m.
“Ferguson” is now a symbol of racial injustice–and was for a time a battle zone. My hope is that the energy and outrage labeled “Ferguson” will be brought to bear, non-violently, on the goal of racial justice many of us hoped for as adolescents.
Ferguson is older than what one might imagine hearing the word “suburb.” My elementary school, still in use, is over 130 years old. Prior to the Civil War Ferguson was a group of large landholdings; we might call them “plantations.” Most were eventually sold and a town platted. In my childhood there was still some recollection of old plantation boundaries, and a few “Gone with the Wind” mansions remained. My high school was on the grounds of the Thomas January plantation, on the footprint of the old manor house. There were some remnants of slave cabins.
After Emancipation former slaves from Ferguson remained in the area. An all-black town, Kinloch, was eventually consolidated adjacent to Ferguson, drawing African Americans from other parts of the area. Although the two towns were back-to-back, only a few streets connected them, and entry into Ferguson was sometimes blocked by chains. There was little contact between residents of the two towns other than the employment of Kinloch residents for household work in Ferguson.
We sometimes got a look at Kinloch. When my mother drove our cleaning lady home, I rode along and saw the unpaved streets, the open sewers, the shacks. One of my childhood memories is of a police car blocking entry into Ferguson so black kids could not attend our summer carnival. The dramatic contrast between conditions in Kinloch and our all-white Ferguson was powerful enough to create strong anti-segregation values in my generation, though we had to await Brown v. Board of Education and especially the Civil Rights Movement before things changed. We had little contact with blacks who were not domestics. Many of us attended Brotherhood Week, the one venue that offered minimal contact with blacks our own age. The Brown decision came just as we were graduating from high school. Ferguson-Florissant schools integrated the following fall (by court order, but peaceably), merging with Kinloch and the white working class suburb of Berkeley. The first post-Brown high school senior class president was an African American student. But it was 1968 before an African American was able to buy a house in Ferguson, through a straw purchase. Ferguson was 99 percent white in 1970.
Fast forward to the 1990s. Kinloch was demolished so that the St. Louis airport runway could be extended. That never happened, but as a consequence most residents of Kinloch lost their homes. Many moved over to the newly annexed area off West Florissant, which became low-income, mostly African-American housing; the setting of Michael Brown’s death. “Old Ferguson,” the area where I grew up, remains virtually unchanged as a physical environment, complete with walking tours of historic homes with big lawns. The white population is concentrated here, with some mix of middle class blacks. One can still think in terms of White Ferguson and Black Ferguson.
We lived with racial tensions as children and adolescents in Ferguson, but also with fond attachment to our town. Many of my classmates return for reunions after all these years. But I found returning for my 60th reunion last September a weird experience. Ferguson is no longer my home, but a concept. Imagine what it is like to see Anderson Cooper on the streets of your home town, along with other national figures. President Obama comments at key moments. Mr. Brown’s parents speak to a UN committee in Geneva. The “hands up” gesture appears in Hong Kong protests.
“Ferguson” is now a symbol of racial injustice–and was for a time a battle zone. My hope is that the energy and outrage labeled “Ferguson” will be brought to bear, non-violently, on the goal of racial justice many of us hoped for as adolescents. Ferguson’s racial issues have been there for a long time. When I return to Ferguson for my next reunion, what will I see? A new version of the civil rights movement or a reprise of 1960s urban violence?
Mary Ann Lamanna is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, with a Ph.D. from Notre Dame and an M.A. from University of North Carolina, where she was active in the Chapel Hill civil rights movement in the 1960s. She is author of Marriages, Families, and Relationships, 12th ed. and Emile Durkheim on the Family.
Please join Sociologists for Justice for an informal meet and greet during the annual American Sociological Association meeting in Chicago. We will discuss public sociology, the findings from our 2014 survey, Ferguson one year later, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Date: Monday, August 24, 2015
Time: 6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Location: See ASA Program Book for Event Location
(event is listed under “Other Meetings – Sociology and Racial Justice”)
We are deeply disappointed in the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. The handling of the case by St. Louis County Prosecutor Attorney Robert McCulloch and the subsequent decision by the grand jury is another example of the all-too-common elusiveness of justice for communities of color.
Our thoughts are with Michael Brown’s family, friends, and community as they fight to be heard. We strongly support efforts to organize for systemic changes in policing across the nation. We stand in solidarity with those already engaged in efforts to ensure that Black lives matter. Further, we urge the Department of Justice to conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether federal civil rights charges should be filed against Officer Wilson and encourage the Obama administration to consider our recommendations for addressing the racialized and aggressive police practices that often lead to fatal citizen encounters.
As we plan for how Sociologists for Justice can aid in the cause of racial justice, we urge you to join local solidarity efforts in your community and look forward to you joining us in our next steps as an organization committed to using sociology to advance justice and dignity for all.
In an op-ed published in the St. Louis Dispatch, Gregory Squires, a Sociologist for Justice member and George Washington University sociology and public policy professor, argues that uneven development and residential segregation contribute to racial tensions between police and black communities in Ferguson and other cities in the U.S.
Recent events in Ferguson constitute the logical outcome of forces spelled out in 1968 by the National Advisory Panel on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission. The report warned of a “permanent division of our country into two societies: one, largely Negro and poor, located in the central cities; the other predominantly white and affluent, located in the suburbs and outlying areas.”
Cities have not become pockets of black poverty surrounded by prosperous white suburbs. But the reality of uneven development documented in the Kerner report persists in the nation’s metropolitan areas. Central features of that development are persisting racial segregation and surging economic segregation.
To understand recent events in Ferguson, and similar tension around the U.S., we need to go beyond an understanding (accurate or inaccurate) of individual or cultural characteristics (e.g., work ethic of minorities, culture of poverty among the urban poor, racial prejudice on the part of police) and examine the institutions that shape continuing uneven metropolitan development.
While nationwide most measures of segregation peaked in the 1970s, hypersegregation persists in older industrial cities where the African-American population is concentrated — what Brown University sociologist John Logan labeled the ghetto belt, including Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis and many others.
Meanwhile, economic segregation, like economic inequality generally, is surging. As the Pew Research Center reported, between 1980 and 2010 the share of low-income census tracts (where most residents have incomes below two-thirds the national median) in the nation’s 30 largest metropolitan areas grew from 12 percent to 18 percent. The share of upper-income tracts (where the majority had incomes double the median) grew from 3 percent to 6 percent. Poor people and rich people are living increasingly apart.
These are not simply cold numbers. In poor neighborhoods schools are more likely to be failing, poverty and unemployment rates are higher, racial profiling and mass incarceration turn ordinary citizens into criminals, banks are few but payday lenders and other predatory financial services are prevalent, food deserts persist, and many other social problems are concentrated. These problems are spilling into suburbs like Ferguson where the Brookings Institution reported the poverty level doubled between 2000 and 2012, reaching 25 percent, and unemployment jumped from 5 percent to 13 percent. Context matters.
Read the full article on the St. Louis Dispatch
Please join us on Monday, October 13, 2014 at 1:00 p.m. ET for Ferguson In Context, a tweetchat. The discussion will focus on the social and historical context of Ferguson, police abuse, and strategies for social change. To join the chat, use the #socforjustice hashtag. The session will be moderated by Judy Lubin, PhD, American University (@judylubin), Rory Kramer, PhD, Villanova Univerity (@rorykramer) and Aaron Roussell, PhD, Washington State University(@curmudgeon1y).
On the heels of the open letter signed by over 1,400 sociologists after the police killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, the newly formed group Sociologists for Justice has released a list of published research that informs the arguments put forth in the statement. The following articles and books will help interested readers understand the social and historical context surrounding the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and allow readers to see how these events fit within larger patterns of racial profiling, systemic racism, and police brutality.