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Mechele Dickerson Headshot

In Ferguson, the Most Important Color Might Be Green

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After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Rodney King -- the victim of a brutal beating by Los Angeles police officers -- asked, "Can we all get along?"

Many people in and around Ferguson, Missouri are not getting along. The events that are unfolding in Ferguson epitomize why Americans -- generally -- still find it hard to empathize and get along with each other.

If eyewitness accounts are even close to being true, it is hard to understand why a police officer decided to shoot an unarmed teenager (Mike Brown) multiple times, especially if Brown had his arms raised in the universal sign of surrender.

Understanding what happened that day is a bit easier, though, if you assume that the police officer has never lived near, gone to school with, or worked closely with anyone like the teenager.

Mike Brown lived in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. According to news reports, the police officer who killed him (Darren Wilson) lives in Crestwood, also a suburb of St. Louis. Though they are just a few miles apart geographically, Ferguson residents live in a separate and unequal world that barely resembles the world that exists in communities like Crestwood.

Black v. White

More than two-thirds of Ferguson's residents are black, while Crestwood is overwhelmingly white (only 1.6 percent black). Because only 5 percent of Ferguson's police officers are black, most people have assumed that race explains the confrontations between the St. Louis County police department (only 10 percent black) and the residents of Ferguson.

Race certainly plays a role. St. Louis historically relied on private restrictive covenants to keep blacks from moving into all-white suburban neighborhoods. Ironically, these covenants were declared unconstitutional in Shelley v. Kraemer, a Supreme Court case involving a black family who purchased covenanted land in St. Louis.

But, the turmoil in Ferguson involves more than just black and white. It exposes a broader, disturbing trend in America. Communities throughout this country are becoming more segregated. Not just by race, but also by income.

Green: Neighborhood Segregation by Income and Class

Starting in the 1960s, whites fled urban cities for the suburbs to avoid having their children attend racially integrated school. Suburban communities (including many in St. Louis County) then used exclusionary zoning ordinances to keep neighborhoods segregated -- this time by income and class.

Exclusionary zoning regulations cannot discriminate against residents on the basis of race, but they can segregate neighborhoods by income. Exclusionary zoning does this by preventing developers from building multi-family housing or other housing that might be more affordable for lower-income residents.

Ferguson residents (like Brown) look very different from Crestwood residents (like Wilson). Median household income in Ferguson ($37,500) is almost 45 percent lower than median income in Crestwood ($67,225). Also, while only 14 percent of Ferguson residents have college degrees, more than 45 percent of Crestwood residents graduated from college. And, while 22 percent of Ferguson residents live below the poverty line, only 4 percent live below the poverty line in Crestwood.

Over the last 40 years, more neighborhoods in the United States have become segregated by income. A report that analyzed census data reveals that in 1970, a majority of U.S. families (65 percent) lived in middle-income neighborhoods. By 2007, though, less than half (44 percent) lived in middle-income neighborhoods. Similarly, while only 8 percent of families lived in poor neighborhoods in 1970, that number more than doubled (17 percent) by 2007.

Another report, prepared by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, shows that poverty is now highly concentrated in U.S. neighborhoods. Not only are poor families clustered together and away from middle-income and wealthy families, the number of neighborhoods of mostly poor residents has increased over the last 40 years.

The Role of Empathy

In theory, race could explain why white police officers came to Ferguson heavily armed. But, the economic gulf between the officers and the protesters might also explain why police officers so readily engaged in militaristic SWAT tactics, including using tear gas and rubber bullets on Ferguson protesters.

The inability to empathize with black, lower-income Ferguson residents may also explain why the Ferguson police chief seemed to be blindsided by the intensity of the recent protests, reportedly stating that "[a]pparently, there has been this undertow that has bubbled to the surface."

There was not an undertow in Ferguson. There was a powder keg, waiting to explode.

Although the governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in Ferguson, tensions did temporarily ease when he replaced the St. Louis County Police Department with a unit of the Missouri State Highway Patrol that is headed by a black captain. And the governor withdrew the National Guard shortly after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, also a black man, arrived in Ferguson.

Captain Johnson grew up in Ferguson and has stated that he understands the anger and fear that the citizens of Ferguson are feeling. He can empathize with the Ferguson residents, because he has lived in their world.

As is true in Ferguson and other communities in the U.S., a gulf now exists between the rich and the poor, and between blacks and whites. This gulf is making it harder to empathize with people we don't know, and with people who are different from us.