“Wonder when I’ll find paradise // Somewhere there’s a home sweet and nice” –WAR, The World is a Ghetto
By now, many of you have probably have read the open letter to Michael Brown’s family from Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s mother). It is heartbreaking to think about the deep loss—the deep injustice—that these families have had to bear.
Many of the smaller facts and even the bigger issues between the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin shootings are different. Brown was shot by a policeman, Martin was shot by a volunteer on neighborhood watch. In Ferguson, there are major secondary issues around the militarization of police; in Florida, big sideline issues were “stand your ground” laws, gun control, gated communities. But at the simple core, both Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were murdered because they were young and black and male.
I lead with these two things—the parents’ grief and loss and the racist violence directed at young black men—because they should be front and center in our discussions about Michael and Trayvon.
All of us outside observers—pundits, bloggers, academics, advocates, organizers, arm chair (or laptop) quarterbacks—discuss these tragic shootings, through our own lenses and from our own contexts. We generate paragraphs of text, tables of statistics (percent of police who live in the communities in which they police; the increasing number of guns in the hands of private citizens), color-coded and time-sequenced maps (the increase of poverty in Ferguson over the past ten years; segregation by race in St. Louis) and mostly we talk and talk and talk.
And these conversations are important. These shootings are important touchstones. They expose deep and complicated tangles of issues around race, class, and gender; about violence, fear, and safety; about our country, about where we are going, about what we value; about justice; about the mythologies of the American Dream. These are important issues to discuss, to act upon. We need to have these hard conversations in order to better progress as a society.
But in our discussions about what has happened, in our calls to action, in our advocacy for new policies and practices, it is easy to lose sight of the simple, central reality of loss and of injustice.
So I wanted to call out these core realities before I jump into my own punditry.
All that being said, this blog post is about the demographics of Ferguson and Sanford (the places where Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were killed, respectively). I want to build off of Miriam Axel-Lute’s recent post about the dangerous rhetoric of labeling poor neighborhoods in terms of deficits and borrow some of her points about the fact that how we talk/think about issues often undermines our ability to change things for the better.
Sports Illustrated writer Robert Klemko wrote a story about the Florissant, Mo., McCluer Senior High School football team—the team from the public high school that Ferguson residents attend—and their reaction to the events unfolding around them. It’s a good read and I want to pull a quote from Randall Ceasar, the team’s senior quarterback: “You go online and you have people saying Ferguson is a ghetto. . . . This is not a ghetto.” In an interview on NPR, Klemko emphasized that the players on the (all black) football team largely saw themselves as suburban residents and not from “the ghetto.”
Similarly, where Trayvon Martin was shot, “The Retreat at Twin Lakes,” the mixed-race gated community in Sanford, Florida, where a three-bed, two-bath, 1,200 sq. ft. town home costs $140k, is not what we typically think of as “the ghetto,” at least in terms of demographics and urban form (though an Urban Dictionary contributor disagrees).
Both Sanford and Ferguson are smaller cities within a larger metro region (Orlando and St. Louis, respectively). Both Sanford and Ferguson are majority people of color, have a lower median household income than the national median household income, and have higher poverty rates than the national poverty rate. Both were places hit hard by the recent foreclosure crisis.
As Brookings Institution’s Elizabeth Kneebone writes, cities like Sanford and Ferguson are part of a growing number of places within larger urban regions that are becoming less white and less economically well off and “as concentrated poverty climbs in communities like Ferguson, they find themselves especially ill-equipped to deal with impacts such as poorer education and health outcomes, and higher crime rates.” Peter Dreier and Todd Swanstrom, in a similar vein, explicitly call Ferguson a “suburban ghetto.”
But I wonder if all this jibes with how residents of these communities see themselves. Like the players on McCluer’s football team, I wonder if they see themselves as living in “the ghetto.” Of course, there’s likely a broad range of opinions, but I suspect that many would be uncomfortable with characterizations that rest upon negative impacts and that talk about their communities in terms of what they are ill-equipped to do.
Many families likely feel that they moved from neighborhoods that they viewed as worse off to get to places like Ferguson and Sanford, that they are doing what they are supposed to do to chase the American Dream, to do what is best for their families.
We’ve built a big narrative about “the ghetto” being a place that needs to be escaped from and about the pathway that individuals and families need to take to work themselves out of the ghetto. It’s something about hard work and education and saving money and moving out to a better neighborhood.
But this story ignores the fact that, for some people, all the world is a ghetto.
In HUD’s “Moving to Opportunity,” a 15-year longitudinal study of over 4,600 households with children living in public housing, HUD researchers tracked the economic, health, and social outcomes of families that were given the opportunity/support to move out of public housing against a control group that stayed behind.
The study showed significant, generally improved outcomes for the families that left public housing for lower-poverty neighborhoods, particularly around housing conditions, neighborhood conditions, and health issues for adults and girls (e.g., reduced asthma, hypertension, and diabetes).
However, the results were not positive across the board (e.g., income/employment and educational outcomes were not significantly improved for families who moved).
And one set of negative outcomes associated with moving is particularly germane to the current conversation. Young males (aged 10–20, predominantly black) generally had worse physical and mental health outcomes and felt many boys who moved reported increased police harassment and reported such harassment at a higher rate than boys in the control group. That is, a so-called better neighborhood was more dangerous, more unhealthy, and more likely to expose these boys and young men to increased levels of harassment and racialized mortal peril, even as statistical indicators for their parents and sisters improved.
Young black and brown men, where ever they go, have a target painted on their backs. This is the result of institutionalized racism, pure and simple. And in order for programs like Moving to Opportunity to be more effective at improving people’s lives, we need to address this racism head on.
By making the frame exclusively about concentrated poverty and about environmental exposures/influences of bad neighborhoods, we ignore the structural racism at the core. I’ll take it a step further. By talking about poverty and “bad” neighborhoods and not directly confronting racism and not directly advocating for racial justice, we inadvertently create narratives that blame victims or that blame some victim proxy such as their culture or their environment. Inadvertently, we enable violent racism to continue and undermine our ability to enact even the very solutions that we propose.
(Photo of protester in Ferguson, Mo., by Youth Radio, CC BY-NC-SA.)