If you go to the city website of Ferguson, Missouri, you will see several pictures of happy people. You will see people fishing in ponds, with ducks swimming next to them. You will see people running races. You will see people going to farmer's markets. You will also see a video in which Ferguson's mayor and a member of its City Council talk about their development efforts for the St. Louis suburb, which include new parks and converted loft spaces and—this is mentioned several times—a brew pub.
You will see a version of Ferguson, in other words, that looks nothing like the Ferguson that has come to national attention this week. This Ferguson bears little resemblance to #ferguson. In fantasy Ferguson, a police officer (white) did not shoot an unarmed teenager (black); police did not tear-gas the residents who protested after the shooting; the city did not become synonymous with strife and injustice and crime and the police state. But #ferguson, in many ways, has.
As the Ferguson protests get national attention, though, it's worth remembering that the tragedy that brought the hashtag could have happened in many other American cities. "It just happened to be Ferguson," says Terry Jones, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.
But it happened to be Ferguson, Jones also points out, because of a host of reasons that have to do with history and geography and politics. I spoke with the professor this afternoon, asking him to help explain those reasons and put them into context. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Could you describe some of the relevant history of Ferguson, and of the St. Louis area in general?
We are a border city. Missouri was a slave state that stayed in the Union; it did not experience Reconstruction. Immediately after the Civil War, it passed a host of Jim Crow laws, and added Jim Crowism to its Constitution and created a legacy of racial injustice. St. Louis—the white St. Louis—was and is slow to acknowledge the realities that are associated with that.
So some of the events here go back 200 years or more. Unfortunately, it takes tragedies like this to remind St. Louis that it still has some significant elements of racial injustice with which it needs to deal.
What are those elements?
It's across the spectrum: economic disparities, educational disparities, health care disparities. This metropolitan area ranks among the worst in terms of disparities between African-Americans and caucasians across all measures of quality of life.
Why is that, in particular?
First of all, we have some company, unfortunately. A Cincinnati or a Louisville would be in a similar situation in terms of the slave history and segregationist legislation. History matters here, very much—and I think more so than people appreciate—because it created the steep hills that need to be climbed in order for people to overcome past injustice. It's what makes us distinctive compared to either a Southern city such as Atlanta or a Northern city such as a Minneapolis/St. Paul or a Cleveland.
But I think it's a mistake to have the underlying causes of this incident focused on the city of Ferguson itself, as opposed to the entire St. Louis metropolitan area. This incident could have happened anywhere in St. Louis. It happened to happen in Ferguson. There's nothing special about Ferguson that makes it stand out from the rest of the metropolitan area. In DC, it could have happened in Prince George's County; it could have happened in Alexandria.
What do you think of the way the national narrative is playing out, especially as it relates to the politics of Ferguson?
I think it's a bit unfair to treat Ferguson as "Ferguson," as opposed to Ferguson as exemplary of any suburb in the St. Louis metropolitan area. And indeed, ironically, if I had to score the suburbs in the metropolitan area that have racially mixed populations in terms of the progressiveness of their elected officials, Ferguson would score at or near the top in terms of being sensitive to that and trying to maintain a high degree of racial harmony. Ironically, and tragically, that didn't happen here.
But a white police officer could have shot an African-American young man just about anywhere in the metropolitan area, and I think we would have seen the same sort of reaction. The probability of it happening is almost evenly spread over the metropolitan area. It just happened to be Ferguson.
That doesn't relieve Ferguson of responsibility, but the narrative should not be, "It's not St. Louis, it's Ferguson. That's the problem.'" Each municipality, and each area of St. Louis, should be looking at Ferguson and saying, "There but for the grace of God goeth us. It could have happened here."