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"The Making of Ferguson,"

by Richard Rothstein November/December 2014 issue of Poverty & Race

It is a familiar story. Police viciously assault or kill an unarmed African American man or boy. The black community rises up in protest, often in violent riots. Among many others, it is a 1919 story (Chicago), a 1943 story (Detroit, Harlem), a 1967 story (Newark and over a hundred more), a 1992 story (Los Angeles) and now a contemporary one in St. Louis.

Following the 1967 riots, President Lyndon Johnson appointed an investigatory commission headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. The commission concluded that unprovoked police attacks on black men was pervasive nationwide. It found that housing discrimination had locked black families into overcrowded ghettos where municipal services were denied and rents were exorbitant. It observed that federal financial support was available for housing only if it was segregated. It concluded that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Although we have made some progress since then, it is most remarkable how little has changed, and how much we have forgotten about the underlying causes of segregated neighborhoods where police play an almost colonial role of keeping black men and boys in their place, and of the African American rage that follows. Most even reasonably well-informed people find it curious that once-urban ghetto conditions have now migrated to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson.

Media explanations of segregation’s origins in Ferguson and the St. Louis metropolitan area have been limited. Journalistic accounts have described how suburbs once barred African Americans, by private agreements among white homeowners (restrictive covenants), by discriminatory practices of private realtors, and by racially neutral zoning rules that restricted outer-ring suburbs to the affluent. Inner-ring suburbs, according to these accounts, have flipped from white to black because of “white flight.” Modern segregation, in other words, is attributable to private prejudices of white homeowners who abandoned neighborhoods when blacks arrived, and to the inability of African Americans to afford communities restricted to single-family homes on large lots.

No doubt, private prejudice and suburbanites’ desire for homogenous middle-class environments contributed to segregation in St. Louis and other metropolitan areas. But these explanations are too partial, and they too conveniently excuse public policy from responsibility. A more powerful cause of metropolitan segregation nationwide, and of the occupying police forces needed to regulate it, was the explicit intents of federal, state and local governments to create racially segregated metropolises. In the case of St. Louis, these intents were expressed in mutually reinforcing federal, state and local policies that included:
a) Racially explicit zoning that designated specific ghetto boundaries within the city of St. Louis, turning black neighborhoods into slums: In 1916, St. Louis voters adopted an ordinance prohibiting black families from moving onto blocks with whites. When the Supreme Court prohibited such ordinances, the city’s Plan Commission developed zoning policies that protected exclusive white neighborhoods from commercial and industrial uses, but assigned polluting industries, taverns and houses of prostitution to black neighborhoods, all with open racial justification.

b) Segregated public housing projects that separated blacks from whites: The St. Louis and federal governments used public housing to undermine working-class integration in the central city by razing integrated neighborhoods and placing housing for blacks-only in the city’s north side and for whites-only in the city’s south side.

c) Exclusion of African Americans from white areas by restrictive covenants that began as private agreements, but then were adopted as explicit public policy: The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) issued mortgages in St. Louis and its suburbs to whites conditional on the adoption of pacts that imposed mutual obligations on neighbors never to sell a home to blacks; the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange used model language provided by the FHA for these covenants.

d) Government-subsidized suburban development for whites only, with blacks explicitly excluded: The FHA financed builders throughout St. Louis County to construct subdivisions to draw white lower- and middle-class families from the city, on explicit condition that no black families be permitted to participate in this suburban expansion.

e) Boundary, annexation, spot zoning and municipal incorporation policies designed to remove African Americans from residence near white neighborhoods, or to prevent them from establishing residence near white neighborhoods: Several St. Louis suburbs reacted to attempts of African Americans to purchase homes by condemning their properties (for example, for park use) or by adopting sudden zoning rules to make construction of integrated housing impossible.

f) Denial of adequate municipal services in ghettos, thereby converting black neighborhoods to slums and helping to convince whites that “blacks” and “slums” were synonymous: Because few neighborhoods in St. Louis were open to black residence, neighborhoods where African Americans were permitted became so overcrowded that slum conditions became inevitable.

g) Urban renewal and redevelopment programs to shift ghetto locations, in the guise of cleaning up those slums: The famed Gateway Arch was built on a razed neighborhood of African-American families, many of whom were forced to relocate to other segregated neighborhoods or inner- ring suburbs like Ferguson.

h) Regulatory policy in the real estate and financial sectors that explicitly promoted residential segregation: As for so-called “private” discrimination—the Missouri state agency responsible for regulation of real estate agents deemed selling a home in a white neighborhood to a black family to be professional misconduct that could lead to loss of license.

i) A government-sponsored dual labor market that made suburban housing less affordable for African Americans by preventing them from accumulating wealth needed to participate in homeownership.
That the government through actions like these, not mere private prejudice, was responsible for segregating greater St. Louis was once conventional informed opinion, discussed not only by the Kerner Commission, but by policymakers and the courts. When Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (1969-1972) George Romney proposed to do something about the “white noose” that federal policy had created around black central cities, he was forced out of the job by President Nixon. In 1974, a three- judge panel of the federal Eighth Circuit 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 with responsibility for St. Louis 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.

Although policies to impose segregation are today rarely explicit, their effects endure in neighborhoods segregated by race in the North, South, East, and West. When we blame private prejudice and snobbishness for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash our own history, but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.

Once rules of residential segregation were firmly in place, other public policies, race-neutral, had a disparate impact, reinforcing the segregation. For example, the federal income tax system, permitting the deduction of home mortgage interest, subsidizes those who move to single-family homes in white suburbs and in consequence imposes a relative penalty on those who remain renting in urban African-American neighborhoods.

The federal highway system has had both a racially explicit impact, and an implicit one. For explicit impact, the routing of highways through urban areas was often designed to eliminate black neighborhoods that were close to downtowns. For implicit impact, the generous financing of interstate highways relative to efficient public transportation facilitated the commutes of white suburbanites to office jobs in the city, while creating barriers to the access of urban dwellers (disproportionately black) to good industrial jobs in the suburbs.

But the disparate impact of the mortgage interest deduction or transportation priorities should not distract us from the underlying reality. These policies would have had no racial impact if African Americans had been permitted to suburbanize along with whites.

A century of evidence demonstrates that St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of the real estate, banking and insurance industries. These governmental policies interacted with public labor market and employment policies that denied African Americans access to jobs that comparably skilled whites obtained. When these mutually reinforcing public policies conspired with private prejudice to turn St. Louis’s African- American communities into slums, public officials razed those slums to devote acreage to more profitable (and less unsightly) uses. African Americans who were displaced then relocated to the few other places available, converting towns like Ferguson into new segregated enclaves.

St. Louis’s residential pattern (and that of other U.S. metropolitan areas) of white middle-class suburbs surrounding black ghettos cannot easily be explained without taking account of the myriad public policies that, with race-conscious intent, encouraged and supported this particular distribution of population by race. After all, as Colin Gordon has noted, in Europe, the opposite pattern prevails—middle- class whites reside in the center cities, and low-income immigrants settle in the suburbs, where public housing is located as well. Today, as whites in St. Louis and elsewhere find gentrifying urban neighborhoods more attractive, and displaced African Americans relocate in heavy concentrations to specific suburbs, we may be replicating segregation on the European model.

As the federal court observed more than 30 years ago, school desegregation requires housing desegregation. Some schools in Ferguson today are 90% African-American; performance of students this isolated is inadequate.

Litigation has revealed that in the 2000s, federally supervised banks marketed exploitative subprime loans to African-American communities like Ferguson. When the loans’ exploding interest rates combined with the collapse of the housing bubble, black neighborhoods’ devastation compounded. Half of Ferguson homes today are underwater, with owners owing more than their homes are worth.

Many practical programs and regulatory strategies can address problems of Ferguson and communities like them nationwide. One example is a rule prohibiting landlords from refusing to accept tenants whose rent is subsidized —a few states and municipalities currently do prohibit such refusal, but most do not. Another is to require even outer-ring suburbs to repeal their racially inspired exclusionary zoning ordinances. Going further, we could require every community to permit development of housing to accommodate its “fair share” of its region’s low-income and minority populations—New Jersey, for example, has taken a very modest step towards this requirement.

But we won’t consider such remedies if we remain blind to how Ferguson became Ferguson. It is impractical to think that the public and policymakers will support remedies to problems whose causes they don’t understand. We flatter ourselves that the responsibility is only borne by rogue police officers, white flight and suburbanites’ desire for economic homogeneity. Prosecuting the officer who shot Michael Brown, or investigating and integrating Ferguson’s police department, are certainly necessary, but they won’t address the deeper obstacles to racial progress.


Davis v. St. Louis Housing Authority, Civ. No. 8637 (U.S. District Court, E.D., Missouri, 1955). Reported in Race Relations Law Reporter 1 (1956), 353–355.

Gordon, Colin. 2008. Mapping Decline. St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Hirsch, Arnold R. 1983, 1998. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Jackson, Kenneth T. 1985. Crabgrass Frontier. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Mohl, Raymond A. 2002. The Interstates and the Cities: Highways, Housing, and the Freeway Revolt. Urban Expressways and the Central Cities in Postwar America. Research Report. Poverty and Race Research and Action Council (PRRAC).

Rothstein, Richard. 2012. “Race and Public Housing: Revisiting the Federal Role” Poverty & Race 21(6), Nov./Dec. 2012.

Rothstein, Richard. 2014. Making Ferguson, Public Policies at the Root of Its Troubles. The Economic Policy Institute.

Satter, Beryl. 2009. Family Properties: How the Struggle over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America. New York: Henry Holt.

Sugrue, Thomas J. 1996, 2005. The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

United States v. City of Black Jack, Missouri. 508 F. 2d 1179 (8th Cir. Court of Appeals 1974).

Richard Rothstein is a Research Associate of the Economic Policy Institute and Senior Fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the Univ. of California, Berkeley.

The conclusions in this article are based on a review of the specific race-conscious policies that segregated the St. Louis metropolitan area, as reported in the author’s “Making Ferguson, Public Policies at the Root of Its Troubles,” published by the Economic Policy Institute ( Questions or comments should be addressed to the author at

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