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.