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Ferguson in Black and White (Kindle Single)…

Ferguson in Black and White (Kindle Single)

by Jeff Smith

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Jeff Smith grew up in St. Louis and served one term as a state Senator there, and is now an academic political scientist. In this Kindle Single, Smith tackles the question of why, when police killings of unarmed black men have happened in many cities across America without triggering protests, the killing of Michael Brown has prompted months of unease and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

Smith answers the question by reviewing the history of St. Louis County that shapes local attitudes - especially the attitudes of black residents who have been poorly served - and often harassed and cheated - by local and state government. One particularly striking aspect of the history Smith outlines is the fragmentation of the county into 59 municipalities, some tiny, which support themselves financially by trapping low-income residents and visitors in endless cycles of tickets, fines, penalties, and probation appointments. Smith also explains how white control of land has worked for generations to limit and undermine wealth accumulation in the black community, and how expansion of the St. Louis airport around 2000 displaced a number of black families into Ferguson, creating a significant demographic shift that is not yet reflected in the town's power structure. This is a nuanced analysis, and may or may not translate to other cities. It's certainly not all there is to say about the implications of the Michael Brown case or the grand jury decision, but it is fascinating.

One complicating factor, not hidden in the book, but not headlined, either: Smith resigned his position as state Senator because he was charged and pled guilty to obstruction of justice, after trying to cover up illegal coordination with an independent expenditure campaign during an earlier (2004) run for US Congress. Smith is up front about this late in this book, and in fact uses the contrast between his experience and that of a corrupt local black politician to make an important point: that too many whites in the county have concluded that all black politicians are likely to be corrupt, something they don't assume about other whites. Smith's analysis is so thoughtful, and so accessible in its depiction of what Ferguson's black residents have had to face, that it came as a blow to learn of Smith's own prior failings. Nonetheless, in this work, he's smart, cogent, and empathetic, and worth reading. ( )
  bezoar44 | Jan 22, 2015 |
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