Can Black Political Empowerment Help Save Ferguson?
Looking ahead at the future of Ferguson, Missouri after the events of recent weeks, it seems certain that the overwhelming African-American majority will press for empowerment in municipal affairs. This transition needs to come with a parallel effort to strengthen the municipal economy, drawing on any and all local and external resources to prevent a “politics of scarcity” that can end badly for the town and its residents.
Drive a short distance west of “ground zero” in Ferguson toward Lambert St. Louis International Airport, and you will find the overgrown lots, blocked streets and crumbling building foundations of Kinloch, once an all-black town of about 10,000 residents – one of nine such cities in the US back in the 1960s. Kinloch at the time was a politically autonomous black community, created in 1948 by residents of an unincorporated area of St. Louis County – then a blank space on the map of mainly middle-class white towns that had incorporated in the region over the years.
Some residents had migrated to Kinloch from the South in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Others settled as returning soldiers after World War I, and some moved from Illinois after East St Louis race riots in 1917. After World War II, new residents often sought refuge from poor living and housing conditions facing African-Americans in the City of St. Louis, particularly in the “projects.”
By incorporating, Kinloch residents were fully empowered at the municipal level, and were free to plan and conduct their own affairs by whatever means they chose to try improving their conditions of life. Indeed, the town was established on the premise that, through a substantial measure of self-determination, African-Americans could gain for themselves what they were denied in superordinate white-dominated political structures. The town formed a circumscribed and identifiable political unit, and its well-marked borders formed social as well as political boundaries. For advocates of separatist-style Black Power in those years, Kinloch might have provided an ideal beta-test for the independent development of black-led institutions and separatism.
But in a social and economic study of Kinloch at a time of serious US racial tensions in the late 1960s, John E. Kramer – then a sociologist at the University of Missouri - St. Louis – and I concluded that the overall effect of political autonomy on Kinloch’s economy was primarily adverse. For all of its political autonomy, Kinloch appeared to be a strikingly depressed and stagnant zone of economic deprivation even at its peak, in the midst of a rapidly growing region during the prosperous years of the 1960s. The social and physical contrasts between it and its immediate neighbors like Ferguson were remarkable and obvious.
Making sustainable economic progress proved to be a tough slog for Kinloch. There were new street lights at street corners, a new fire engine and some other gains, but such progress may well have materialized anyway if the community had remained an unincorporated area of St. Louis County. A large 1965 federal grant for sewer construction might not have been forthcoming had Kinloch remained unincorporated, but the grant seemed less a consequence of political autonomy and the development of strong indigenous political institutions than the result of one individual's personal initiative. Most importantly, the Kinloch schools remained a hopeless exercise in economic hardship, even as social ties centered on the town’s churches were impressive and serious leaders emerged from time to time to try and make a difference.
Meantime local taxes were much higher than they would have been if the municipality had not been formed. The tax base was just too small. So Kinloch residents had lower disposable incomes under home rule and public revenue was woefully deficient. The sadly inferior schools the town was able to maintain had an evident and predictably deleterious effect on the academic and vocational skill levels of its work force at a time of plentiful jobs in the St. Louis region. Perhaps the most discouraging single image during our research was a large pile of books, donated by other St. Louis County school districts, piled in the library basement under a foot or two of water.
In the end, we concluded that the residents of Kinloch had gained little in a material sense from political independence, and may have lost a good deal more – we could find no identifiable connection between political autonomy and improvement of economic welfare. The economic “air supply” was absent, and there was nothing on the horizon back fifty years ago that might have given give substance to hope - the critical sequencing of economic development and political empowerment suggested in Jason Riley’s new book Please Stop Helping Us (2014) in the case of Kinloch was in effect reversed.
There is also the irony of attempting a separate-but-equal approach to civil and political organization even though that same approach had been ruled unconstitutional and inherently unequal in the educational sphere more than a decade earlier.
In the 1980s much of Kinloch’s land was taken over in an Airport noise abatement project and the most recent data (2010 Census) records a mere 299 residents. So it’s not possible to assess how Kinloch would have fared during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
In today’s coverage of Ferguson, few media reports mention neighboring Kinloch, and when they do it’s about unruly kids crossing the town line and vandalizing local homes. Going forward, developments in Ferguson are uncertain. However, in Kinloch we have a valuable, nearby warning that empowerment, desirable as it may be, is limited in its ability to foster development. In the end, people want to improve their lives. Period. And that involves going back to the basics of creating marketable labor skills, attracting capital investment and providing well-funded public services. If the new Ferguson wants to succeed, an object lesson is right next door. Political empowerment by itself won’t cut it.