A New Day in Ferguson

It feels like a new day here in Ferguson.

We used to chuckle when we read that Ferguson was a typical American city.  The typical American City is mostly White; Ferguson is about 2/3rds African American.  It used to be all White, many years ago. But Ferguson, like the rest of the country, started changing. Ferguson became a destination suburb for successful middle class African Americans.  And the new African American residents fit right in – they were just as obsessive about their children and their yards and homes.

As Blacks moved in, White flight also happened. But many White residents stayed, because they loved the town and the people of all colors.  It’s not a popular term anymore, but they really did believe in the ideal of a color-blind society.  When protesters mentioned the “racist White Ferguson residents”, you wanted to tell them “No no, those people left years ago”.

Unfortunately Ferguson as a diverse, integrated community didn’t fit needs of the press or the Department of Justice. The DOJ actually prepared two reports on Ferguson, one on the shooting of Michael Brown and the other on Ferguson’s police and courts.  In Ferguson we weren’t that worried about the police and courts.  We didn’t realize how bad the courts had become, but we knew the city consciously increased ticketing starting in 2011 and residents of all colors supported the policy.  We were well within the ticket revenue limit set by the state, we still ticketed far less than surrounding communities and police were increasing enforcement of violations, not making things up.

The protesters expected the DOJ to find the shooting unjustified and press charges.  However when Attorney General Eric Holder held his press conference to announce the reports he said the opposite.  No charges were to be filed in the shooting.  Holder quickly moved on to talk about Ferguson.  He suggested Ferguson was “a community where this harm frequently appears to stem, at least in part, from racial bias” and that given this “highly toxic environment” it wasn’t surprising that “a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg.”  He seemed to be suggesting that while the Ferguson police officer didn’t actually assassinate Michael Brown, given the racial bias the DOJ found in Ferguson, it was understandable that people believed that the officer could have.

In Ferguson we were stunned – we didn’t recognize the city that Holder was describing.  Yet Holder’s press conference seemed to lock in the national narrative of Ferguson as a town hostile to African Americans and clinging to its racists past.

On Tuesday Ferguson held its first election for Mayor since the unrest.  Current Mayor James Knowles was running for reelection against Ella Jones, a recently elected African American councilwoman.

People vote for many different reasons.  Ella is a smart woman with lots of supporters.  Many of us think Mayor Knowles did a great job seeing us through two tornados and the unrest and is a unique asset for the city, involved in the community and government literally since he was a teen.

But the election also felt like a referendum on which narrative of Ferguson its residents believed was true.  Many people not in Ferguson wanted the national narrative to be true; at the polling place I worked, none of Ella’s poll workers actually lived in Ferguson.  They expected a large voter turnout to sweep Ella into office, reinforcing how unhappy the African American residents were with Ferguson.

They were right about the turnout.  As the Post-Dispatch noted, turnout was 50% higher than the last contested mayoral election.  But they were wrong about the narrative.  A strong majority voted for the Mayor, to continue the current leadership of the City.  When Ferguson residents actually had a chance to make their views known, most residents reaffirmed that they liked their City.

It feels like we took a large step towards correcting the national misconceptions about Ferguson.  Race in America is complex and nuanced, and Ferguson certainly has much it can improve upon.  But Ferguson, for all of its faults, isn’t the racist caricature presented in the national press.  It turns out the people of Ferguson of all races think it is a pretty nice place to live.

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