Ferguson, In Context

On Friday, for our last session of class, I taught my students about contemporary inequality in America and the process of racial segregation in the Ferguson area. I’d planned this since the summer, when I learned that I would have one more day of instruction than usual. I had no idea that the grand jury’s decision would re-propel the events into the news only the week before (just as I didn’t know that Pres. Obama would force me to update my immigration lecture).

So, what did I teach my students? In general, I stuck with topics we’ve already touched on (systematic racism in federal policies, the history of segregation in housing, class and racial economic divides, etc.) rather than introducing new information about police militarization, etc. Those other topics are significant but I wanted to keep this grounded in the long history as much as possible and reach out to students whatever their own political inclinations. Besides, leaving them with the feeling that there’s more to be studied is never a bad thing.

THE LESSON: (You can follow along with a pdf of my slides here.)

21st Century Inequality – We began with a general discussion of the history of economic inequality in America, including the fact that it’s been rising pretty steadily since the early/mid-1970s. We discussed one piece of evidence about how much your parents’ wealth impacts your future earning potential by comparing poor college graduates and wealthy high school dropouts. Turning to race, we looked at the history of unemployment and then at a chart that floored me when I first saw it.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2009 the Median Net Worth of a White Household was $113,149. The comparable figures for Hispanic and Black Households were $6,325 and $5,677. That means the median Hispanic household had a net worth that is only 5.5% of the median White household, and the median Black household’s net worth was only 5% of the median White household.

To bring the impact of that home, we talked about a hypothetical scenario in which all three households decided to sell everything so a child could attend Cal Poly Pomona. How many years would that net worth pay for? The white family could pay for enough time to earn a degree. The other families, not even a year of college. And the racial/ethnic divides actually increased from 2005 to 2009, in part because of racially unbalanced lending practices. Nor does the high incarceration rate of black men help in any of this.

America’s Cities – After a brief overview of what Ferguson is today (rising proportion of black residents, inner-ring suburb, 50% of homeowners “under water”), we turned to the history. I had assigned my students this overview of the history from Al Jazeera. For my deeper background material, I relied extensively on this piece from the Economic Policy Institute (which in turn draws heavily on the work of historian Colin Gordon).

Building on earlier investigations of the Progressive Era and New Deal, we discussed steps in the St. Louis area toward direct and then indirect racial zoning and the way in which federal housing programs first required and then failed to outlaw segregation in public housing projects. We reviewed FHA complicity in racial covenants, both for individual mortgage applicants and for developers and the way that new, apparently color-blind language actually continued existing segregation policies.

The most shocking parts for my students were stories of how the communities of Creve Coeur, Black Jack, and Olivette used a combination of incorporation, eminent domain, zoning, and urban renewal funds, to keep their cities all-white. (I’ll point you back to the EPI piece to read them for yourself.) These policies were then exacerbated by the behavior of realtors, insurance companies, and banks.

Police, Race, and the Black Experience in 1940s Fiction – We closed by comparing the shooting of Michael Brown and the police response to protests with excerpts from Native Son and Invisible Man (available here). I think there are some remarkable parallels in terms of the police treatment of the black community in Native Son and the militarized presence in August and again in November. More striking are the parallels between the shootings of Tod Clifton and Michael Brown – the scuffle, the body on the concrete, the racial context. The Invisible Man’s dissection of the forgotten reality remains painfully pertinent today.

I wrapped up the lesson by reminding them that historical analysis can’t tell us exactly what happened in the case of Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice. But it can draw our attention to the patterns that make these events more much more likely. That’s when I closed with the headline from The Onion: “Sometimes Unfortunate Things Happen in the Heat of a 400-Year-Old Legacy of Racism.” That sums it up better than about anything I’ve seen.


Not exactly a cheery last day, but I think one that reinforced a central lesson I try to convey in my survey class: that history isn’t over. It continues to shape our lives today and so we’re better off if we know and understand it. A brief critical assessment we engaged in after the lesson suggested that many of the students had already internalized that lesson, so I would say the quarter was a success.

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