The police shooting of Michael Brown was the spark.
But the tinder fueling the anger and resentment that has exploded in Ferguson, Mo., has been building for decades.
The town has seen many middle-class homeowners who eagerly moved to St. Louis’ northern suburbs after World War II to buy brick ranch homes with nice yards leave, replaced by poorer newcomers. Good blue-collar jobs have grown scarce; the factories that once sprouted here have closed shop. Schools have struggled.
And local governments — slow to evolve – often now look little like the people they represent. For the black community, it creates a sense of lost opportunity in a place much like other aging suburbs in the Rust Belt and across the country.
“For a young black man, there’s not much employment, not a lot of opportunity,” said Todd Swanstrom, a professor of public policy at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. “It’s kind of a tinder box.”
The seething tensions prompted Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to declare a curfew in Ferguson on Saturday, one week after a white police officer shot and killed Brown, an 18-year-old black man. The declaration followed another night of looting.
Critics say an initial heavy-handed response by police using tear gas and rubber bullets touched off the unrest, with mainly white officers facing off against mainly black crowds.
Since Brown’s death, race and police tactics have dominated the headlines blaring from this town 12 miles northwest of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch. But that’s only part of the story.
From jobs to schools to racial transition, Ferguson and its neighboring towns — where many protesters came from — have undergone sweeping changes in recent years. Some places have become pockets of poverty, comparable to the poorest spots in St. Louis.
Others, like Ferguson, remain more mixed, with middle-class subdivisions alongside run-down streets and big apartment complexes like the one where Brown lived. Either way, Swanstrom said, the area highlights the growing challenge of the “suburbanization” of poverty.
“This was a catalyst for something much deeper, the lack of economic opportunities and representation people have,” said Etefia Umana, an educator and board member of a community group called Better Family Life. “A lot of the issues are boiling up.”
It’s been boiling for decades.
St. Louis’ jumble of suburbs — there are 91 municipalities in a county of about 1 million people ringing the city — has long been sharply segregated. Until the late 1940s, restrictive covenants blocked blacks from buying homes in many of them.
Well into the 1970s, tight zoning restrictions and other rules, especially in places near the city’s mostly black north side, kept many largely white, said Colin Gordon, a University of Iowa professor who’s studied housing in St. Louis.
That began to change by the 1980s, when middle- and working-class white families began leaving north county — as the area around Ferguson is known — for newer, roomier housing further out in the exurbs. In their place came a flood of black families from St. Louis in search of better housing and schools.
“When black flight out of the city began, this was the logical frontier,” Gordon said. “It became what the city had been, a zone of racial transition.”
In Ferguson, the change happened fast. In a generation — from 1990 to today — the population changed from three-fourths white to two-thirds black. Even as the area’s demographics shifted, good blue-collar jobs sustained many of these towns, said Lara Granich, a community organizer.
“Everyone in our parish was a brick layer or a letter carrier or something. I didn’t know anyone who had gone to college, but they all made a decent living,” said Granich, who grew up in nearby Glasgow Village, another neighborhood on the decline. “The people who live there now tend to work at McDonald’s.”
The recession hurt, too. This part of the St. Louis region took the brunt of the foreclosure crisis, with subprime loans turning bad, and investors scooping up cheap houses to rent. Auto plants that had sustained a black middle-class shut down.
Since 2000, the median household income in Ferguson has fallen by 30 percent when adjusted for inflation, to about $36,000. In the Census tract where Brown lived, median income is less than $27,000. Just half of the adults work.
Fr. Steven Lawler, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson, really saw the change in 2008, when visits to his food pantry spiked. They haven’t gone down since.
“I know there are places where an economic recovery’s happening,” he said. “But in the places where people are most stressed, there hasn’t been a recovery.”
Still, as Lawler and others note, Ferguson has some things going for it. Its pleasant, old downtown has seen a revival in recent years, with a busy Saturday farmers market and a new craft brewery. It still has middle-class neighborhoods of historic homes. The headquarters of a Fortune 500 company — Emerson Electric Co. — sits on a serene campus just up the hill from the gas station looters burned a week ago Sunday night.
Gail Babcock, program director at Ferguson Youth Initiative, was quick to note her town still has a strong sense of community — and every morning last week volunteers have poured in to clean up from protests and looting. The challenge is in connecting its poorer residents – especially younger ones – to it.
“It’s very hard for them to find jobs,” said Babcock, who runs a community service program for youth convicted of minor criminal offenses. “That sets up a situation where they tend to get in trouble, and they probably wouldn’t under other circumstances.”
Then there are the schools, one reason why many families moved to these suburbs in the first place. Two north county districts – including the one where Brown graduated from high school in May — have lost their state accreditation in recent years. The district Ferguson shares with a neighboring town remain accredited but scores low on state tests.
That was a big reason why John Weaver took the morning off work Friday, drove his plumbing truck to Florissant, and asked the visiting Gov. Nixon what he planned to do about the problems that have plagued these neighborhoods for years.
Nixon acknowledged there’s “a lot of work to do.” Weaver was not impressed.
“All these politicians say they’ll fight for our education. I feel cheated,” he said in an interview later. “And if I feel cheated, how should these kids feel?”
These issues are all tied together for Shermale Humphrey, a 21-year-old who joined the protests last week. She plans to enlist in the Air Force, but right now works at a McDonald’s near where Brown was shot. She’s something of a veteran activist – helping to organize strikes by fast-food workers in St. Louis — and sees race and local politics and economics here as closely intertwined.
“It’s a shortage of everything,” she said. “It’s a shortage of jobs. Of African Americans on the police force and in government. Of people not being able to get a good education.”
Adding to the frustration, many protesters say, is that the people still running many of these downs don’t much look like the people who live there now. Just three of Ferguson’s 53 police officers are black. Six of seven City Council members are white. So are six of the seven school board members, who run a district with a student body that’s 78 percent black.
Many of these towns are still run “like little fiefdoms,” said Umana, who moved to Ferguson eight years ago, by remnants of their old white middle class that may not share the concerns of newcomers.
“The numbers flip-flopped, but the power structure remained the same,” he said.
It has been hard to build black political leadership in these fast-changing suburbs, said Mike Jones, a black veteran of St. Louis’ political scene. Indeed, it’s been harder than in St. Louis, which has long been racially mixed.
But a more diverse set of voices at Ferguson City Hall, Jones said, might have avoided the heavy-handed police response that only inflamed protests.
“The question is how — in a city that’s 67 percent African-American — do you have absolutely no African American political representation?” Jones asked. “That’s what leads you to a police force that could become involved in this sort of incident.”
It’s an issue more communities will have to face, Jones predicts, as traditionally “urban” issues of poverty and racial change migrate to suburbs often less-equipped to deal with them. And not just in St. Louis.
A study last month by the Brookings Institution found the number of poor people living in high-poverty suburban neighborhoods nationwide more than doubled in the last decade, growing much faster than in big cities.
Chris Krehmeyer, who runs St. Louis-based community development nonprofit Beyond Housing, says he knows colleagues around the country dealing with a lot of the same issues as he is in north St. Louis County, tackling housing and jobs and schools all at once. The key, he said, is to build trust with residents before the community blows up.
Ferguson is a bellwether, he said. “This story could happen in lots of different places, all over this country.”
By: Tim Logan and Molly Hennessy-Fiske, The Los Angeles Times; The National Memo, August 18, 2014
“What ‘War On Whites’?”: The Myth Of White Victimhood Is Not Just Ahistorical, But Obscene In Its Willful Ignorance
If there really were a “war on whites,” as a Republican congressman from Alabama ludicrously claims, it wouldn’t be going very well for the anti-white side.
In 2012, the last year for which comprehensive Census Bureau data are available, white households had a median income of $57,009, compared with $33,321 for African American households and $39,005 for Hispanic households. The white-black income gap was almost exactly the same as in 1972; the gap between whites and Hispanics actually worsened.
According to an analysis by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, the average white family has six times as much accumulated wealth as the average black or Hispanic family. Other authoritative data show that African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely than whites to be unemployed, impoverished or incarcerated.
Yet Rep. Mo Brooks feverishly imagines that whites are somehow under attack and that the principal assailant is — why am I not surprised? — President Obama.
Asked whether Republicans were alienating Latino voters with their position on immigration, Brooks said this to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham:
“This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else. It’s a part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008, continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare, all those kinds of things.”
Ingraham, who makes her living as a rhetorical flamethrower, actually told the congressman that his “phraseology might not be the best choice.” But Brooks stuck to his appalling thesis in a subsequent interview with AL.com, saying that “in effect, what the Democrats are doing with their dividing America by race is they are waging a war on whites and I find that repugnant.”
Brooks is from Alabama, where public officials used fire hoses and attack dogs against black children who were peacefully trying to integrate the whites-only lunch counters of Birmingham. Where terrorists acting in the name of white supremacy bombed a historic African American church, killing four little girls. Where demonstrators marching for voting rights were savagely beaten by police and vigilantes as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Brooks is 60, which means he lived through these events. Surely he knows that it was white-imposed Jim Crow segregation — not anything that black or brown people did — that divided America by race. At some level, he must realize that his overheated blather about a “war on whites” is not just ahistorical but obscene in its willful ignorance.
But maybe not. Maybe Brooks has fully bought in to the paranoid myth of white victimhood that gives the opposition to Obama and his policies such an edge of nastiness and desperation.
I do not believe it can be a coincidence that this notion of whites somehow being under attack is finding new expression — not just in Brooks’s explicit words but in the euphemistic language of many others as well — when the first black president lives in the White House.
The myth of victimhood is not new. Long after it was understood that slavery was morally wrong, Southern whites justified its perpetuation by citing the fear that blacks, once liberated, would surely take bloody revenge against those who had held them in bondage. Jim Crow laws and lynchings had a similar purpose. In the minds of his assassins, 14-year-old Emmett Till was tortured and killed to protect the flower of Southern womanhood.
The myth surfaces whenever Obama comments on race. When he spoke about the killing of Trayvon Martin, nothing he said was inherently controversial. But the mere fact that Obama expressed sympathy for Martin was taken by some as an attack on the forces of law and order, or an apology for hip-hop “thug life” culture, or an indication that his real agenda is to ban all handguns, or something along those ridiculous lines. When Obama was running for president, I wrote that to win he would have to be perceived as “the least-aggrieved black man in America.” He has tried his best, but for some people it’s not enough.
There are other reasons why the myth of white victimhood is gaining strength — economic dislocation, rapid immigration from Latin America, changing demographics that will make this a majority-minority country before mid-century. But I can’t help feeling that Obama’s race heightens the sense of being under siege.
Congressman Brooks, you’re talking pure gibberish. But thanks for being honest.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, August 7, 2014
One unhappy lesson we’ve learned in recent years is that economics is a far more political subject than we liked to imagine. Well, duh, you may say. But, before the financial crisis, many economists — even, to some extent, yours truly — believed that there was a fairly broad professional consensus on some important issues.
This was especially true of monetary policy. It’s not that many years since the administration of George W. Bush declared that one lesson from the 2001 recession and the recovery that followed was that “aggressive monetary policy can make a recession shorter and milder.” Surely, then, we’d have a bipartisan consensus in favor of even more aggressive monetary policy to fight the far worse slump of 2007 to 2009. Right?
Well, no. I’ve written a number of times about the phenomenon of “sadomonetarism,” the constant demand that the Federal Reserve and other central banks stop trying to boost employment and raise interest rates instead, regardless of circumstances. I’ve suggested that the persistence of this phenomenon has a lot to do with ideology, which, in turn, has a lot to do with class interests. And I still think that’s true.
But I now think that class interests also operate through a cruder, more direct channel. Quite simply, easy-money policies, while they may help the economy as a whole, are directly detrimental to people who get a lot of their income from bonds and other interest-paying assets — and this mainly means the very wealthy, in particular the top 0.01 percent.
The story so far: For more than five years, the Fed has faced harsh criticism from a coalition of economists, pundits, politicians and financial-industry moguls warning that it is “debasing the dollar” and setting the stage for runaway inflation. You might have thought that the continuing failure of the predicted inflation to materialize would cause at least a few second thoughts, but you’d be wrong. Some of the critics have come up with new rationales for unchanging policy demands — it’s about inflation! no, it’s about financial stability! — but most have simply continued to repeat the same warnings.
Who are these always-wrong, never-in-doubt critics? With no exceptions I can think of, they come from the right side of the political spectrum. But why should right-wing sentiments go hand in hand with inflation paranoia? One answer is that using monetary policy to fight slumps is a form of government activism. And conservatives don’t want to legitimize the notion that government action can ever have positive effects, because once you start down that path you might end up endorsing things like government-guaranteed health insurance.
But there’s also a much more direct reason for those defending the interests of the wealthy to complain about easy money: The wealthy derive an important part of their income from interest on bonds, and low-rate policies have greatly reduced this income.
Complaints about low interest rates are usually framed in terms of the harm being done to retired Americans living on the interest from their CDs. But the interest receipts of older Americans go mainly to a small and relatively affluent minority. In 2012, the average older American with interest income received more than $3,000, but half the group received $255 or less. The really big losers from low interest rates are the truly wealthy — not even the 1 percent, but the 0.1 percent or even the 0.01 percent. Back in 2007, before the slump, the average member of the 0.01 percent received $3 million (in 2012 dollars) in interest. By 2011, that had fallen to $1.3 million — a loss equivalent to almost 9 percent of the group’s 2007 income.
That’s a lot, and it surely explains a lot of the hysteria over Fed policy. The rich are even more likely than most people to believe that what’s good for them is good for America — and their wealth and the influence it buys ensure that there are always plenty of supposed experts eager to find justifications for this attitude. Hence sadomonetarism.
Which brings me back to the politicization of economics.
Before the financial crisis, many central bankers and economists were, it’s now clear, living in a fantasy world, imagining themselves to be technocrats insulated from the political fray. After all, their job was to steer the economy between the shoals of inflation and depression, and who could object to that?
It turns out, however, that using monetary policy to fight depression, while in the interest of the vast majority of Americans, isn’t in the interest of a small, wealthy minority. And, as a result, monetary policy is as bound up in class and ideological conflict as tax policy.
The truth is that in a society as unequal and polarized as ours has become, almost everything is political. Get used to it.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, July 10, 2014
“It’s Time For Progressives To Reclaim The Constitution”: Challenging Conservative Claims About What The Constitution Really Demands
You cannot talk for very long to a conservative these days without hearing the words “constitutional” and “constitutionalist.”
Formulations such as “I am a constitutional conservative” or “I am a constitutionalist” are tea party habits, but they are not confined to its ranks. Many kinds of conservatives contend that everything they believe is thoroughly consistent with the views and intentions of our 18th-century Founders.
Wielding pocket-sized copies of the Constitution, they like to cite it to settle political disputes. Writing in the YG Network’s recently issued conservative manifesto, “Room to Grow,” Ramesh Ponnuru argues that there is a new and salutary “popular interest in constitutionalism.”
“Instead of treating the Constitution as the property of lawyers and judges,” he notes, “it proposes that legislators, and even citizen-activists, have an independent duty to evaluate the constitutionality of legislation.”
One plausible progressive response is to see Ponnuru’s exercise as doomed from the start. The framers could not possibly have foreseen what the world would look like in 2014. In any event, they got some important things wrong, most glaringly their document’s acceptance of slavery.
Moreover, because the Constitution was written primarily as a foundation for government, it can answer only so many questions. David Strauss of the University of Chicago Law School authored a book called “The Living Constitution” to make plain that there is a lot more to this concept than its detractors suggest. He notes that “a great part of the framers’ genius lay exactly in their ability to leave provisions general when they should be left general, so as not to undermine the document’s ability to serve as common ground.”
The problem with “originalists,” Strauss says, is that they “take general provisions and make them specific,” even when they’re not. One might add that the originalists’ versions of specificity often seem to overlap with their political preferences.
Nonetheless, progressives should take Ponnuru’s proposal seriously and think constitutionally themselves. In doing so, they would challenge conservative claims about what the Constitution really demands.
In the May issue of the Boston University Law Review, Joseph R. Fishkin and William E. Forbath of the University of Texas School of Law show that at key turning points in our history (the Jacksonian era, the Populist and Progressive moments and the New Deal), opponents of rising inequality made strong arguments “that we cannot keep our constitutional democracy — our republican form of government — without constitutional restraints against oligarchy and a political economy that maintains a broad middle class, accessible to everyone.”
Their article is called “The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution,” though Forbath told me that he and Fishkin may give the book they’re writing on the topic the more upbeat title “The Constitution of Opportunity.” Their view is that by empowering the wealthy in our political system, Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United directly contradict the Constitution’s central commitment to shared self-rule.
“Extreme concentrations of economic and political power undermine equal opportunity and equal citizenship,” they write. “In this way, oligarchy is incompatible with, and a threat to, the American constitutional scheme.”
While their overarching vision contrasts sharply with Ponnuru’s, they make a similar critique of what they call an excessively “court-centered” approach to constitutionalism. “Constitutional politics during the 19th and early 20th centuries” was very different and the subject of democratic deliberation. In earlier eras, they say, the Constitution was seen as not simply permitting but actually requiring “affirmative legislation . . . to ensure a wide distribution of opportunity” and to address “the problem of oligarchy in a modern capitalist society.”
The authors remind us of Franklin Roosevelt’s warning that “the inevitable consequence” of placing “economic and financial control in the hands of the few” would be “the destruction of the base of our form of government.” And writing during the Gilded Age, a time like ours in many ways, the journalist James F. Hudson argued that “imbedded” in the Constitution is “the principle” mandating “the widest distribution among the people, not only of political power, but of the advantages of wealth, education and social influence.”
The idea of a Constitution of Opportunity is both refreshing and relevant. For too long, progressives have allowed conservatives to monopolize claims of fealty to our unifying national document. In fact, those who would battle rising economic inequalities to create a robust middle class should insist that it’s they who are most loyal to the Constitution’s core purpose. Broadly shared well-being is essential to the framers’ promise that “We the people” will be the stewards of our government.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, July 6, 2014
Until not long ago, we tended to think of Republicans as unified and focused, and Democrats as inherently fractious (see, for instance, the evergreen “Dems In Disarray” headline). These days the opposite is true—or at least it’s the case that Republicans have become just as divided as Democrats. But how much of that is about Washington infighting and intraparty struggles for power, and how much is actually substantive and matters to voters? This post from The Upshot at the New York Times has some provocative hints. Using polling data from February that tested opinions on a range of issues, they found that Republicans are much less unified than Democrats when it comes to their opinions on policy:
On these seven issues, 47 percent of self-identified Democrats agree with the party’s stance on at least six of them. And 66 percent agree with at least five. Republicans were less cohesive, with just 25 percent agreeing on six or more issues, and 48 percent agreeing on five.
Piling on more issues showed similar results. To check our results, we also created an 11-issue index that added four topics: federal funding for universal pre-kindergarten, the distribution of wealth in the United States, the minimum wage and abortion. A majority of Democrats—61 percent—agreed with at least eight Democratic positions, compared with 42 percent of Republicans who agreed with eight or more Republican positions.
Even though you have a relatively large number of issues being tested, it could be a function of the particular ones we’re talking about. For instance, minimum wage increases are hugely popular and always have been, so it isn’t surprising that plenty of Republicans break with their party on that, and it doesn’t necessarily signify a fundamental and meaningful fracture. So I went over to the original poll, which has a nice interactive graphic you can use to see crosstabs on each question, and there are some interesting signs of dissent within the GOP. For instance:
20 percent of Republicans say their party is nominating candidates who are too conservative, compared to only 9 percent of Democrats who say their party’s candidates are too liberal. At the same time, 32 percent of Republicans say their party’s candidates aren’t conservative enough, compared to 18 percent of Democrats who say their party’s candidates aren’t liberal enough.
29 percent of Republicans say they have an unfavorable view of the Republican party, compared to 14 percent of Democrats who have an unfavorable view of the Democratic party.
On many issues, there are between a quarter and two-fifths of Republicans who disagree with the party’s position. 34 percent think marijuana should be legal, 33 percent think gun laws should be more strict, 28 percent support federally funded universal pre-K, 24 percent think global warming is caused mostly by human activity, 36 percent support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, 40 percent support same-sex marriage, and 37 percent think the distribution of wealth should be more fair.
The Tea Party gets all the press, and not without reason, but there is obviously a significant bloc of Republicans who are displeased with their party’s right turn in the last few years. We’re talking about more than just a few disgruntled Rockefeller Republicans bemoaning it after 18 holes at the Greenwich country club. We’re talking about as much as a third of the party’s voters.
Of course, issues aren’t everything, and these days, conservatism is defined in many ways. It’s a set of policy positions, but it can also be measured by the depth of your loathing for Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular, or by the kinds of political tactics you embrace. But this is a good reminder that there are significant numbers of Republicans out there who, if you just look at what they think about issues, actually look pretty liberal.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 15, 2014