Forty years ago, in the days of “white flight” from American cities to the suburbs, Ferguson, Missouri was a “sundowner town”—black people did not drive through it at night because they knew they would be harassed by the white police force. Ferguson is now 65 percent black and low income, but its police force is still predominantly white and working class, approximately fifty-three white officers and three black officers. Although black people no longer sneak through town, the police treat young black men as either trespassers or ex- and future prisoners. The hip hop artist T-Dubb-O said that black males throughout the St. Louis area know how old they are from the tone of the police. “When you’re eight or nine, it’s, ‘yo, where are you going?’ and when it’s ‘get down on the ground,’ you know you’ve turned fifteen.”
The St. Louis city limits encompass a small area and Ferguson is one of ninety incorporated municipalities that immediately surround the “Gateway to the West,” each with its own mayor or manager. These local authorities raise money in significant part from fines levied against motorists. A police officer citing someone for a petty infraction is in reality a municipal worker trying to get paid. In addition to the municipalities, suburban St. Louis has a county government, with a council and a county executive. The outgoing county executive, Charlie A. Dooley, is black and a Democrat.
Voter turnout in Ferguson itself is low, but the remainder of North County (one of the four sections of St. Louis County) outvotes St. Louis city. (The city has a population of around 300,000; the county nearly a million.) Hazel Erby, the only black member of the seven-member county council, said that the city manager of Ferguson and its city council appoint the chief of police, and therefore voting is critical, but the complicated structure of municipal government is one reason many people have been uninterested in local politics.
A North County resident of middle-class University City for almost fifty years, Mrs. Erby said that she hadn’t discussed what Ferguson was like with her children when they were teenagers twenty years ago. Her son and two daughters told her not long ago, “We did, Mom.” Her district, which she has represented for ten years, is made up of thirty-eight municipalities, including Ferguson. She said that she never had “that conversation” with her son about how to compose himself when confronted by the police, but her husband recently told her, “I did.”
For the first time in US history, more poor people live in the suburbs than in the cities. In St. Louis County, the “Delmar Divide” (at Delmar Boulevard) separates the mostly white South…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.