Over the last few days, punditry about Ferguson, Mo., has converged on a common, well-rehearsed narrative about segregation in St. Louis that goes back to the 19th century: whites will do whatever it takes to prevent blacks from moving into their neighborhoods, including redlining, restrictive covenants, large-lot zoning, intimidation and violence. When these ultimately fail, whites build new interstates and move en masse to the next ring of undeveloped farmland, leaving behind destitute neighborhoods with no investment or opportunity.
According to this narrative, the shocking lack of diversity in the Ferguson city leadership and the violence and rage of recent days are merely the most recent crops harvested from the old seeds of segregation. This narrative is depressing in large part because it suggests no real reform agenda. It implies that African Americans of North St. Louis County can take over the local government and police force only when the last remaining whites die or move to St. Charles County and the cycle of disinvestment is complete. The rest of us can only shake our heads in righteous indignation.
This narrative is wrong in several crucial respects. For starters, while St. Louis is indeed among the most segregated metropolitan regions in the United States, Ferguson and some of its North County neighbors are among the most racially integrated municipalities in Missouri and well beyond.
In the St. Louis metro area, a black was elected mayor of East St. Louis way back in 1971. Unfortunately, the population of East St. Louis has dropped from 70,000 in 1970 to 27,000 in 2010 as blacks flee a black run city.
That appears to be a general pattern, with Detroit as the most striking example: blacks follow white leadership around and, in the long run, flee black leadership.
In general, blacks follow around conservative white leadership (e.g., blacks have been net moving to the Republican-run Southern states), and flee liberal white leadership (e.g., San Francisco).