Dispatch from Ferguson: Five Years On

FERGUSON, Missouri—Four years ago, I moved from Saudi Arabia, where I had worked for six years, back to my hometown of St. Louis, from which I had departed almost four decades earlier. One of the first social events I attended included an academic researcher who was tossing around the word “Ferguson.” I was looking forward to hearing from people who really knew the local scene.

This was exactly one year after riots and unrest had gripped the suburban St. Louis town, drawing extravagant attention from the national and global media. It had been daily front-page news, even in Mecca, Medina, and Riyadh.

In August 2014, Harun Yahya, a columnist for Arab News, attempted to edify readers in the Desert Kingdom with “A lesson from Ferguson riots.”

“The region is known as the poorest part of the St. Louis area, of which it is part,” he wrote. “Commercial growth in recent years has only increased the inequality of income in favor of the white population; the black population has grown even poorer in the last 15 years. Investments and companies largely belong to whites, and the people employed by those companies again largely consist of whites. The increasingly impoverished black people have therefore also become unemployed.”

 The Saudi Arabian commentator was not to be outdone by our moral betters in Paris, as Radio France solemnly reported on “Ferguson, le nouveau symbole des inégalités raciales aux Etats-Unis.” The French minister of justice joined the chorus, emitting angry, ill-informed tweets about the little Missouri suburb.

The Real Ferguson
In fact, Ferguson is not the hellish place imagined by the French justice minister. It is not, and never has come near to being, the poorest part of the St. Louis area. Ferguson, with a population of 21,000, is in the heart of north St. Louis County, a region home to about 350,000 people. The part of north St. Louis County east of Ferguson extending all the way to the Mississippi River has suffered overwhelmingly from white flight; this part of the St. Louis area, near to but not including Ferguson, is a place of disastrously failing public schools, de facto segregation, violent crime, and poverty. This unfortunate area should not be mistaken for Ferguson.

Before the events of five years ago, Ferguson was such a bright spot in the context of north St. Louis County that there were serious proposals for some adjoining municipalities to merge and become part of a larger city of Ferguson. While Ferguson had experienced some white flight, what was distinctive about Ferguson was the degree to which a large segment of the white population had refused to leave.

The real Ferguson, today as five years ago, has pockets of poverty and blight. But for the most part it is a community of middle-class black and middle-class white small business owners and both blue-collar and white-collar workers in the large nearby defense, aerospace, and healthcare industries. Within about a two-mile radius of old downtown Ferguson are the headquarters of Emerson Electric, Express Scripts, and the Boeing Defense, Space, and Security business.

Ferguson’s racial makeup recently was noted as fairly stable at about two-thirds black and one-third white, while some of the neighboring municipalities range from 80 percent to nearly 100 percent black. The next census will show a new element, an unprecedented surge of Hispanic population in north St. Louis County since 2010.

Ferguson is home to one of the St. Louis area’s most remarkable elementary schools, the Catholic parochial school of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The majority of its students are African-American Protestants from the Ferguson area; a large and growing component of the enrollment are children from Latin-American immigrant families. All of these children graduate with qualifications to enter excellent St. Louis area prep schools. With no significant legislation in Missouri to provide for school choice, the school’s survival is something of a miracle.

Now, back to the social event in August 2015, where I was hoping to hear something more in touch with Ferguson than the pronouncements of Arab News or Radio France. The university researcher told me she had been appointed to a staff position on an entity established by the then-governor of Missouri, Democrat Jay Nixon. It was called the Ferguson Commission. I remarked that I was keenly interested in Ferguson. I had lived near there in north St. Louis city when I was a child, when I used to go once or twice a week to visit my cousins who lived in Ferguson. I also said I had a lifelong friend who has lived in Ferguson for many years, working on the staff of one of the churches there.

“What exactly is the commission doing in Ferguson?” I asked.

“Oh, the Ferguson Commission isn’t doing anything in Ferguson!” she replied. She talked about the town as one might discuss a dead insect one is holding uncertainly with latex-gloved hands in a pair of tweezers. “The Ferguson Commission is for a conversation about race in Missouri.”

Silly me, for thinking that the Ferguson Commission was concerned with Ferguson.

Surprises Five Years On
Evenings came and mornings followed; now it has been five years since Ferguson: The Global Media Event.

The exertions of the high-toned grifters of the Ferguson Commission are mostly forgotten, but the town of Ferguson is still here. What’s going on?

Politically, both the black majority and the white minority are expressing overall resistance to radicalism, especially any radicalism imported by outside agitators, including the significant amount of troublemaking that has been financed by George Soros’ network.

In 2017, outsiders believed that Ferguson citizens would vote out Mayor James Knowles, whom they tagged as a symbol of “institutional racism,” even though there is nothing remotely racist about him.  Moreover, Knowles is well known as an active Republican in a city whose voting registration is overwhelmingly Democratic. Knowles was helped by the fact that municipal ballots in Ferguson are nonpartisan, but still there was no hiding his conservatism, Republican affiliation, or “whiteness.”

Knowles was challenged by black city council member Ella Jones, who raised far more money than Knowles for her campaign and advertised the fact that she was “the only Democrat” in the race. Until this contest she had not expressed radical political views, but her financiers got her to make her campaign one of racial grievances. Outside political machines came into Ferguson to organize for Jones. Timid Missouri Republicans for the most part treated Knowles like a leper.

Black turnout was high on this first occasion for the mayor to face the voters since the riots; there was no voter suppression. Still, when the votes were counted, Knowles won with 57 percent of the vote. By any reasonable reckoning, this means that Knowles in all likelihood was supported by the majority of black as well as white citizens in Ferguson. I know anecdotally, because I knocked on hundreds of doors to get out the vote for Knowles, that I encountered numerous whites opposed to Knowles and quite a few blacks expressing support for him. I listened to and talked with many black Ferguson voters. I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears that black Ferguson voters—regardless of their choice for mayor—were motivated not by identity politics, but by concern for the well-being of their community.

Knowles, a political prodigy who just turned 40 years old last month, recently was elected president of the St. Louis County Municipal League, the association of mayors of the 88 different municipalities in the majority-Democratic county of one million people. People have a lot to learn from Knowles, myself not excepted.

Earlier this year, I was filled with enthusiasm for an initiative to reunite St. Louis city with St. Louis County, because their nearly 150 years of jurisdictional separation has stifled economic growth and impeded better local government. I’m right about that in principle, but Knowles was right in pointing out fatal flaws in the specifics of the reunification proposal. Knowles was a leader in forcing reunification backers to withdraw their initiative and return to the drawing board, where one hopes they will be informed by Knowles and other leaders who understand the community as well as he does.

I know and respect civic leaders in Ferguson who disagree with Knowles about certain issues of economic development in the town. Contrary to outsiders’ notions that Ferguson is toxically divided over race, Ferguson’s noteworthy political divisions concern specific economic priorities that completely transcend considerations of race.

Real Hope for Renewal
Historic scars of long years of racism are very real in the entire St. Louis area, as in many other parts of the country. My wife—an immigrant from Mexico City—and I are aware of the ills as well as the historic greatness and charm of the inner city of St. Louis where we live now. Ferguson certainly has its share of problems, but it is truly one of the parts of the St. Louis area least deserving of being scorned as racist.

My wife and I have become so attracted to Ferguson that we have bought a property there and intend to live there permanently when our daughter gets a little older and after we get some work done on the place. It’s a large property with two lovely historic houses and two other less-than-lovely, not-very-historic houses. They all need TLC. We dream of it becoming an historic inn, and I imagine my wife and daughter as Ferguson’s very own Latin Gilmore Girls, speaking witty rapid-fire Spanish instead of English.

We don’t know if we will realize our investment dreams in Ferguson, but we are certain that others will. About half of Ferguson’s territory has been designated an “opportunity zone” under President Trump’s tax reform legislation. This could be a game-changer according to several analyses, including this one in Forbes.

For more details about how Opportunity Zones could revitalize communities such as Ferguson—through patient capital not only doing real estate deals but also investing in startups and operating businesses—listen to this webinar presented for the Missouri Department of Economic Development by Ross Baird of Village Capital. Baird presents a compelling vision for long-term investors to take their stakes with “portfolios of entrepreneurs” in addition to real estate.

Meanwhile, massive local infrastructure investment, some of it having been anticipated before the riots, is now resuming in the part of Ferguson most in need of improvement.

We are spending time in Ferguson almost daily as investors and entrepreneurs, and we sense that one of the last things Ferguson residents of any color want to do is to indulge in “a conversation about race in Missouri.” Talk for the sake of talking is fatuous. Impulsive, ideological activism impedes truly constructive action.

Blacks, whites, and, increasingly, Latinos, live side by side today in the community. Those who are staying in Ferguson or who will move there tend to be motivated by solidarity—on being together as neighbors first and foremost without undue impulses of activism or ideology. Our Ferguson friends and future neighbors want to curb crime, to clean up blight, and to obtain or create better jobs. They want their children to get good educations and live in wholesome environments. They are predominantly church-going people whose faith is real and lived. They are coming together to make Ferguson great again.

Photo Credit: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

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