A tale of two layoffs
What's broke?


FergusonI was in the wilds of Alaska, off the grid for the first time since 1994, when news broke that a white policeman shot a young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo. So I've been playing catch-up.

As usual, the tragedy has generated a lot more heat than light.

While multiple inquiries into the circumstances of the shooting plod along behind the scenes, interested parties attempt to shape public perceptions.

The local police chief releases a video showing the victim apparently stealing cigars and intimidating a store clerk minutes before he's shot. The victim's family brings in its own medical examinar who issues an autopsy showing the victim was shot six times. Meanwhile, protesters -- many from outside Ferguson -- clash with police and the governor calls in the National Guard.

At a distance from Ferguson, many shocked observers try to understand (1) how the shooting happened and (2) why it stimulated such an angry response.

There may be a common answer to both questions. And it may not fit into the generally accepted assumption that continuing racial segregation is the cause.

According to an analysis by the Washington Post's "Monkey Cage" political science blog, while St. Louis is among the most segregated metropolitan regions in the country, Ferguson is one of the most racially integrated. Furthermore, the income gap between blacks and whites in Ferguson is smaller than elsewhere.

"The immediate problem in Ferguson is neither residential segregation nor its demise," according to this analysis. "Rather, as many have pointed out, it is that the racial integration of the community has not been reflected in the municipal government and police force, whose racial composition still reflects the status quo of the 1980s." Blacks may live side by side with whites, but they feel disenfranchised.

The root problem is the low rate of African American participation in local elections, which are typically held in separate months from national elections that get more publicity and draw more people to the polls. According to political scientists, "off-cycle elections have been a favored strategy of established ethnic groups in American cities who wished to keep immigrants and minorities out of power." White homeowners and members of municipal unions tend to vote in proportionately larger numbers.

The good news is that the problem of asymmetric representation can be fixed. The bad news is that it will take time -- perhaps a generation or more. The sad irony, of course, is that Missouri is considering a law that would require voter photo ID that many people of color don't have.

Meanwhile, if events in Ferguson follow the pattern of similar crises, protests won't end until someone is sacrificed to the protesters. It may be the officer who shot the young man or it may be the police chief whose ham-fisted response so incensed the community. But someone's head will roll.

What's less likely is that something will be done to consolidate elections and increase participation by African American voters, which is the necessary first step in making governments and police departments more reflective of their communities.




Good comment, Dick,

When the Ferguson shooting first broke I heard an interview with someone from the minority community there who discussed the city's mostly black population, governed and policed by institutions mainly white. Why didn't the black residents vote in people more like them? She explained that come election day, they were focused on just getting by -- not on voting. I'd hope the shooting and its aftermath would remind people that voting is the method we use to change government to something we like better. It's that important.

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