Ferguson, Missouri, is a majority-black city governed mostly by whites. The mayor is white. The police chief is white. The police force is 94 percent white. Only one of its six city council members is black. These facts, as much as anything, have shaped the protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown. Ferguson, with a 67 percent black population, is a place where the largest community has little political voice.
Why is that? David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has studied the dynamics of race and elections in St. Louis proper. He says that the pattern in Ferguson is common throughout the city’s inner-ring suburbs, where blacks have gradually replaced whites in recent decades.
The issue boils down to who votes. Ferguson is roughly two-thirds black, but compared with the city’s whites, the community is younger, poorer (the city has a 22 percent poverty rate overall), and, as The New York Times recently wrote, somewhat transient, prone to moving “from apartment to apartment.” All of these factors make black residents less likely to go to the polls, especially in low-turnout municipal elections. And so whites dominate politically. “The entire mobilization side of it is what accounts for the difference,” Kimball said.
To illustrate the point, Kimball told me about a recent school board election in which the city’s racial fissures came to the fore. In 2013, Art McCoy, the young and promising school district superintendent, was suspended by the board without explanation. McCoy, who later resigned, was black, as were three-quarters of the district’s students. Six of the school board’s members were white, while the other was Hispanic. Local outrage grew quickly.
“It’s a white school board and then you have this black superintendent, who so many people are impressed with,” Esther Haywood, president of the St. Louis County branch of the NAACP, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “Why are they trying to get rid of this black superintendent? We don’t know.”
In the wake of the controversy, three black candidates chose to run for the school board; despite the anger over McCoy’s ouster, only one managed to win a seat.
“I think the school board election is illustrative, because all the elements are there,” Kimball said. “You’d think, OK, this is going to motivate the African-American community. We’re going to see some changes. It’s kind of depressing from the standpoint of democracy serving all the constituents in the community.” In other words, democracy doesn’t always serve the poor.
Jordan Weissmann is Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
© 2014, Slate