Ferguson tragedy begs discussion of St. Louis’ ongoing tensions

Most Washington University students are proud to call St. Louis home for at least nine months out of the year—as such, it is important for us to fully grasp the tension in Ferguson and the tragic events occurring so close to our adopted home.

Last Saturday, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a city in St. Louis County located about 20 minutes north of Wash. U.’s campus. The death of an unarmed black teenager sparked daily rallies near campus, with Ferguson serving home to a series of police confrontations that have left protesters bombarded with tear gas and police forces barricaded behind riot gear. The story quickly became national and attracted widespread media coverage. After a full day without incident on Thursday, the streets of Ferguson were again filled with violence on Friday night.

As college students in a city that is a representation of racial stratification in urban America, we have been thrust into a disquieting situation as we move into our dorms and prepare for another year of college life: how to think about and interpret this deep-seated, close-to-home issue.

If we didn’t attend school down the road from Ferguson, we might be hard-pressed to follow this story with the same zeal. This proximity to the violent confrontations may be scary for students—particularly freshmen arriving on campus for the first time—but the accompanying discussion can lead to a better understanding of social injustices that we may or may not experience in our everyday lives.

Oftentimes on campus, the racial divide in St. Louis is not explicitly discussed but is instead mentioned just in reminders not to stray north of Delmar or east of the Mississippi River. A more inclusive conversation would talk about the sociohistorical context surrounding this divide—it’s not just about realizing that St. Louis is segregated, but rather about analyzing the roots of this problem and how they fit into a larger understanding of the world we inhabit.

Exclusionary zoning and housing laws in the mid-20th century prevented blacks from living in most St. Louis suburbs. Ferguson was an exception, and the resulting movement of blacks to that city led to the mass fleeing of whites. The political and police forces, however, have remained white over the years, leading to the racial tension we’ve witnessed over the last week. It is important to understand that this tragedy is not an isolated incident, but rather one representative of racial tensions in St. Louis and throughout the nation.

At counselor training for pre-orientation programs Friday, leaders of the First Year Center announced that they would be building Ferguson-based discussion into Bear Beginnings programming. Orientation week this year is already seeing the addition of a new social justice program in response to several such issues on campus in the past two years, suggesting that the administration understands the power of dialogue on campus. Administrators have a responsibility to ensure that new students—and new St. Louisans—are made aware of the history and reality of their new city.

Problems like the racial and institutional divide in St. Louis are prevalent throughout the United States; it just so happens that the powder keg exploded near to us. But because everyone on campus should be paying attention to the story, and because it will inform campus dialogue, we have the chance to create a meaningful education about important, worldly issues. Aspects of this story are understandably tough to talk about, but by no means should that discomfort prevent discussion; rather, it makes an informed perspective and enlightened conversation all the more necessary.

As stories like this one tend to do, Ferguson will likely fade out of the national consciousness soon, once an extended peace hopefully comes to the city. Wash. U. students shouldn’t let that happen, though—let’s understand what it means to say that north of Delmar is a dangerous area, and let’s discuss “breaking the bubble” in more than just fun or jest.

Liberal arts learners are supposed to think about the world. For those of us who consider our college a home away from home, our world starts in St. Louis. The memory of this event should provoke more than a week of sensationalized news coverage; it is a chance to re-examine how we approach our world so that we can seek lasting change in our community.

  • Jerome Bauer

    “The political and police forces, however, have remained white over the years, leading to the racial tension we’ve witnessed over the last week.”

    [citation needed]

  • YT

    How about you stop equivocating and call the “reminders not to stray north of Delmar” what they are: ignorance, with undertones of racism and classism. WashU students want to believe that they’re educated and tolerant and doing the right things, but this often heard piece of “advice” is nothing more than fear of the poor black population of our city.

    I’m white and I’ve been around the north side many times, and I’ll admit that it’s jarring and often uncomfortable to be the subject of suspicious looks and people wondering why you’re there. But I’ve never felt unsafe or threatened. The area isn’t crawling with “thugs” that are going to shoot or rob you as soon as you cross Delmar. Many neighborhoods of the north side have been so torn apart by demolition that you might not even see anyone walking around. The people most likely to stop you and ask what you’re doing are the cops, because they might assume you’re looking to buy drugs.

    Should you take precautions? Absolutely, as with any urban area. Should you try not to venture around some of the more crime-ridden areas at night? Yeah. But should you ignore these neighborhoods, act like the people and problems there don’t exist, because someone told you they’re “ghetto”? No.

    Now I don’t believe in this “white savior” complex that would see an end to poverty and crime simply because WashU, of all the institutions in the St. Louis area, is waking up to the problems on the north side. That’s absurd. But I do believe that WUSTL needs to do a better job of educating its students about the city’s disparities and their historical roots. Take a poll of the student body and see how many know what “Shelley vs. Kraemer” or “Pruitt-Igoe” are. I bet the results would be unsettling.

    • Pensive Potato

      “How about you stop equivocating and call the “reminders not to stray north of Delmar” what they are: ignorance, with undertones of racism and classism”

      Alternatively: In order to reduce being the victim of a crime, refrain from entering high-crime areas. This isn’t the only riot St. Louis has seen in recent years; there were two others along Delmar (one culminating in a double shooting) a couple years ago.

      “The area isn’t crawling with “thugs” that are going to shoot or rob you as soon as you cross Delmar.”

      No one’s saying they are, but there are several crimes every year (muggings, carjackings) committed against students a block north of Delmar.

      “But should you ignore these neighborhoods, act like the people and problems there don’t exist, because someone told you they’re “ghetto”?”

      And no one’s saying that you should.

      “Take a poll of the student body and see how many know what “Shelley vs. Kraemer” or “Pruitt-Igoe” are. I bet the results would be unsettling.”

      A 1945 case involving St. Louis, and a 1954 STL housing project that was demolished 40 years ago. It’s not upsetting or surprising that transplants to St. Louis, most of whom will only be there for four years, aren’t aware of these.

      Don’t be so angry, yo.