News / USA

Shifting Demographics Lie Beneath Racial Tensions in Ferguson

Demonstrators protest the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown across the street from the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 23, 2014.Demonstrators protest the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown across the street from the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 23, 2014.
x
Demonstrators protest the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown across the street from the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 23, 2014.
Demonstrators protest the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown across the street from the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 23, 2014.
VOA News

After three consecutive nights of relative calm in the Missouri suburb of Ferguson, where a white policeman fatally shot an unarmed black teenager nearly two weeks ago, it appears tensions between protesters and the police are waning.

On Friday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered the state National Guard to withdraw, and there have been no reports of clashes during daily demonstrations sparked by the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. But the apparent easing of tensions hasn’t silenced debate about the deep racial divide that Brown's death thrust into the international spotlight.

To some observers, the incident and surrounding controversy over the so-called "militarization" of Ferguson's police department and its heavy-handed tactics towards African-Americans, come as no surprise.  Population shifts in American communities over the past two decades created the kind of smoldering racial tensions that erupted in Missouri, said Sam Fulwood III, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

"What had been going on in Ferguson as well as in many, many, many other communities all across the country is demographic change, which has been uneven and has been perceived, particularly by people of color in those communities as disadvantageous to them," Fulwood said during an appearance on VOA's Encounter program. "That has bred a long sense of grievance and frustration and anger that is often most exhibited by interactions between youth and police."

And so as Ferguson – a community of 21,000 – slowly morphed from majority white to majority black, those who held power remain the same.

"In 1980, 80 percent of the population in Ferguson was white. In 2010, the population was 85 percent black. So you can see the dramatic changing," Fulwood said. As Ferguson became ever more populated by communities of color, it also became poorer because, Fulwood said, it lost its economic base.

Protesters autograph a sketch of Michael Brown during a protest on August 18, 2014, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Protesters autograph a sketch of Michael Brown during a protest on August 18, 2014, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Suburbanization in the United States has historically been defined by whites moving from cities and their poor, minority communities, taking their economic dominance with them – so-called "white flight." But that narrative no longer applies. 

"We've seen a reversal across the country in recent years – across the country, not just in Ferguson in St. Louis – of the suburbs becoming increasing black and minority populations, communities of color. But they've become poorer," Fulwood said.

And that trend plays out in local politics, leading to situations like Ferguson, where the vast majority of elected officials are white in the majority black community, argues Anthony E. Cook, a law professor at Georgetown University, who also appeared on Encounter.

"When you look at the practices with regard to disenfranchisement, you see common practices throughout the nation," he said. "A lot of the local elections are not held during election year in November, they are held in April, in off months when voter turnout is going to be very difficult anyway."

Cook said voter turnout in the past few elections in Ferguson has been as low as two to five- percent, and those kinds of electoral barriers show that racism, while not enshrined into American law, has nonetheless become institutionalized.

"You're not using race-specific classifications or strategies...no one may be having laws that say no blacks can vote or no blacks can be employed on the school board, but yet the very process by which you have structured the voting system and the means of selecting officers results in disproportionate number of blacks being excluded from the process, and marginalized in that process," he said.

From there, both Fulwood and Cook said it's not hard to connect the dots and see how a Ferguson shooting can happen.

Out of the tragedy of Brown's killing, Cook said, there lies a rare opportunity for Americans

"We have the possibility here of creating a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ideological bi-partisan approach to dealing with this problem. I see Libertarians that are upset with the militarization of the police force...I see Liberals that are upset that you've got a situation where black minority poor communities are being disproportionately impacted by this brutality," he said.

"This may be an opportunity to raise that to a level of national discourse." 

You May Like

UN Ambassador Power Highlights Plight of Women Prisoners

She launches the 'Free the 20' campaign, aimed at profiling women being deprived of their freedom around the world More

Satellite Launch Sparks Spectacular Light Show

A slight delay in a satellite launch lit up the Florida sky early this morning More

Fleeing IS Killings in Syria, Family Reaches Bavaria

Exhausted, scared and under-nourished, Khalil and Maha's tale mirrors those of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries who have left their homes in the hopes of finding a better life More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Mike from: Austin
August 24, 2014 3:36 PM
I think it's a little silly to talk about municipal elections being held in April, in non-presidential election years, as if that comprises a plot against black voters. 85% of the population is black, turnout is as low as 2-5%, those figures suggest that there's terminal apathy in the black community. Maybe that will change now.

by: meanbill from: USA
August 24, 2014 9:34 AM
THE QUESTION... I would ask Sharpton and the Brown protesters and rioters is;.. Would they have protested and rioted if Brown's (skin color) was of another race than theirs?.... would they have had any other reason to protest and riot, if Brown was of a different (skin color) and race?

EVERYBODY including them know, they wouldn't have protested and rioted if Brown's (skin color) was of a different race than their (skin color), and that makes why they protested and rioted a racist racial thing, that wouldn't have happened, if Brown had been of a different (skin color) and race, would it have?..... a racist racial response to a police killing?

by: Quinten from: Canada
August 24, 2014 8:26 AM
So what this expert is saying is if the people that are in the majority run candidates and then get themselves out and exercise their right to vote, they could quite easily be in control of the whole municipal government.
Instead of rioting in the streets and LOOTING STORES to get their way.
Because it's always easier to whine and complain than it is to just do the work.
Sounds to me like the system is fine, it's the participants that need to work harder at it.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs