BY GOVIN VATSAN

Segregation in the United States has existed since our nation’s inception. Although it has gradually been removed from our laws, segregation still lingers in our society, especially in the inner cities. St. Louis is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. But just how has this segregation lasted so fiercely throughout the past few decades?

In 1917, the Supreme Court ended domestic de jure (meaning “by law”) racial segregation. As a result, more and more black families moved into the major cities, producing interracial tension. A change in the law could not, however, erase the racism embedded in our society. This led to a new type of segregation, de facto segregation (meaning “in practice”). The large economic inequalities between blacks and whites in the early 20th century (these remain today), coupled with the rise of the automobile generated a new trend in the United States: suburbanization. Or, more accurately, white flight suburbanization. Essentially, middle-class and affluent whites increasingly moved out of the inner cities to the suburbs, where they were separated from poorer blacks not by laws, but by wealth and income (see image 1).

The statistics speak for themselves. Throughout the past half century the inner city population of St. Louis has dropped so severely that less than 10% of the city’s metropolitan population now lives within the city limits. In fact, by 2010, the population of St. Louis had decreased to the level it was back in the 1870s. 70 years of white flight suburbanization has resulted in a massive racial divide (see figure 2).

STL Outward Suburban Trend

IMAGE 1. The image above depicts the outward suburban trend in St. Louis from the 1930s onwards. Red indicates a loss of people while black indicates a gain.

Although Washington University is clearly on the white side of the divide, just north, at Delmar Boulevard, the demographics completely shift. This is called the “Delmar Divide.” This divide is the result of decades of economically motivated suburbanization and racial segregation.

Once again, the statistics speak for themselves. Residents south of Delmar are 73% White, while residents north of Delmar are 98% black. The median home value south of Delmar is $300,000, while the median home value north of Delmar is $70,000. The median income south of Delmar is $50,000, while the median income north of Delmar is $18,000. Finally, 70% of the residents south of Delmar have at least a Bachelor’s degree, while only 10% of the residents north of Delmar have a Bachelor’s degree.

Ultimately, we must realize that this problem has its roots in slavery, and is as old as the United States. Despite the progress and achievements that have been made over the years, there is no end in sight. The question becomes, how do we define segregation?

Few are openly racist. No one wants segregation, but segregation clearly still exists. It just hides behind other words. Safety. Property. Crime. Quality of Education. Income. Friendliness. Racism mixes with values, with morals. Is it racist to want to be safe? Is it racist to want a good education? No, it is not, but there are facets of racism behind the desire to want a safe, strong education. The key distinction that must be made is with regard to cause. While segregation was initially caused by racism, a socioeconomic trap now perpetuates it. The few that are able to escape the inner cities do so on account of hard work, perseverance, and luck, and most of those do not return. Consequently, the cities get even worse. From an economic standpoint, success is as cyclical as failure. This trend is not unique to St. Louis, in fact it is common across the nation, but St. Louis may be the United State’s worst example of segregation.

Economic mobility is defined as the ability to change one’s economic status. Yet right here in the United States, the land of opportunity, where we pride ourselves on the American dream, we have a lower economic mobility than Canada, Western Europe, and Scandinavia. Upper and middle class families can afford to send their children to schools where they will learn to succeed. Lower class families cannot do so. Their children, by and large, then spend their lives in the lower class trap, unable to get out.

We know that not everyone can be in the upper or middle classes. But while we must have rich and poor people, the gap between them can be reduced. I am referring to government intervention, and skepticism is a natural response. In fact, St. Louis history actually provides a fitting justification for distrust in the government’s ability to ameliorate inequality. In the 1950s and 60s St. Louis started a housing project known as the Pruitt-Igoe urban housing program. The goal was to create a government housing system for low-income whites and blacks in the hopes of keeping the families out of the slums of St. Louis. What turned out as a well-meaning idea became internationally recognized for its high levels of poverty and crime. It failed so completely that it was destroyed by the 1970s.  Pruitt-Igoe is still recognized as one of the worst housing projects in the history of the United States, but the failure of certain governmental programs should not limit their ambition. Government regulation is not without fault, and not all government policies succeed in the way they are intended, but most do.

IMAGE 2. : A depiction of race in St. Louis, 2010. Red represents white residents, Blue represents black residents. (source: Flickr/Eric Fischer)

IMAGE 2. : A depiction of race in St. Louis, 2010. Red represents white residents, Blue represents black residents.                        (Source: Flickr/Eric Fischer)

The only question that remains is where do we, collectively, draw the line? Clearly there is a point at which inequality becomes unacceptable, the extent of segregation in St. Louis parallels other inequalities, and indicates that our city crossed the line long ago. While we may wish that pure capitalism were self-adjusting and self-regulating, the history of the United States has clearly shown us that it is not, and we need to realize that without intervention of some scale, there are many industries and millions of people that will fall through the cracks.at not everyone can be in the upper or middle classes. But while we must have rich and poor people, the gap between them can be reduced. I am referring to government intervention, and skepticism is a natural response. In fact, St. Louis history actually provides a fitting justification for distrust in the government’s ability to ameliorate inequality. In the 1950s and 60s St. Louis started a housing project known as the Pruitt-Igoe urban housing program. The goal was to create a government housing system for low-income whites and blacks in the hopes of keeping the families out of the slums of St. Louis. What turned out as a well-meaning idea became internationally recognized for its high levels of poverty and crime. It failed so completely that it was destroyed by the 1970s.  Pruitt-Igoe is still recognized as one of the worst housing projects in the history of the United States, but the failure of certain governmental programs should not limit their ambition. Government regulation is not without fault, and not all government policies succeed in the way they are intended, but most do.

Overall, St. Louis is an excellent example of a problem that can be extrapolated to the entire nation, and to most of the 1st world. St. Louis has changed dramatically over the past century, for better and for worse. The fact is that St. Louis is a representation of the socioeconomic and racial problems in 21st century America, problems which can only be cured through changes in public policy that are reflective of those in public opinion.

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Govin Vatsan

Govin Vatsan

Govin Vatsan is junior in the School of Engineering. He can be reached at gsvatsan@ wustl.edu.
Govin Vatsan

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