“If you’re serious about racial equity, you’ve got to be committed to unwinding those decades of policy that created unequal situations in the first place,” says Jason Purnell. An associate professor at the Brown School, Purnell is also the director of the Washington University initiative Health Equity Works, which leverages data and community collaboration to drive health equity.
“I use the analogy that if you left the water on in your bathtub and left home this morning, and you came home to a flooded house, turning off the faucet is just step number one,” he says. “You haven’t fixed anything just because you’ve turned off the faucet. You still have a flooded house. I think so often these programs and projects that we do are an attempt to turn off the faucet, or at least turn the water pressure down, or maybe even just change the temperature of the water, rather than realizing that we have cumulative disadvantages over the course of several generations that we have to repair.” Purnell traces a direct line from policy decisions in the past to those disadvantages in the present.
“I’ve begun saying that St. Louis is an innovator in segregation,” he says. As part of the research team that produced Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide, a 115-page community-driven report that examines the history of segregation and housing policy in St. Louis, he has examined the issue in depth.
I’ve begun saying that St. Louis is an innovator in segregation.
“We really were kind of first out of the gate when you look at things like municipal zoning ordinances that are explicitly by race,” he says. In 1916, the City of St. Louis voted on a ballot initiative, supported by the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange, that would restrict neighborhood occupancy by race. “People took the day off to vote on that ordinance, and it passed by over 70% of the vote,” Purnell says. When that law was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court in the 1917 Buchanan v. Warley decision, he says “we just found a new method.”
That new method was the restrictive deed covenant, an agreement “between White neighbors … saying that we’re not going to sell our homes to African-Americans, and putting that into the deeds,” Purnell says. These restrictive covenants, pioneered in St. Louis after the turn of the century, grew in popularity in the 1920s, in St. Louis and beyond. Shelley v. Kraemer, the landmark court case challenging their constitutionality, originated in St. Louis in 1945 when J.D. and Ethel Lee Shelley bought a home at 4600 Labadie Avenue in The Ville. Though a restrictive covenant had been attached to the deed of the house since 1911, the owner agreed not to enforce it. However, Louis D. Kraemer, another property owner in the community, filed a suit to enforce the covenant and prevent the Shelleys from moving in.
When the Supreme Court heard the case in 1948, it ruled 6-0 that it was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment for state courts to enforce racially restrictive covenants (though the Court did not rule that the covenants themselves were illegal).
“And it’s a 6-0 decision,” Purnell explains, “because three of the justices on the Supreme Court had to recuse themselves because they lived in neighborhoods with restrictive covenants.”
Though the Supreme Court had ruled against segregation in policy in both Buchanan v. Warley and Shelley v. Kraemer, it didn’t stop segregation in practice. Indeed, it didn’t stop it in policy, either.
The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) was established in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide mortgage support for homeowners. But, as described in Segregation in St. Louis, “The HOLC wanted assurance that borrowers would not default on the new loans. It hired local real estate agents throughout the country to assess the condition of housing and the surrounding neighborhoods to determine whether the housing was a good or bad financial risk.”
Those assessments were codified in what were then called “residential security maps.” And as historian Colin Gordon writes in Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, “[T]he key to the rating system — was racial occupancy. … D areas were almost invariably marked by ‘infiltration’ or the presence of a ‘colored settlement’ or ‘Negro colony.’” On these maps, those ‘D’ areas were marked in red, giving birth to the term “redlining.”
When the Federal Housing Administration was created a year after the HOLC to support first-time home buyers, its lending restrictions mirrored those of the HOLC. As a result, “Of the approximately 70,000 housing units built in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County from 1947 to 1952, fewer than 35, or .05%, were available to African Americans because of FHA policy, restrictive covenants, or the policies and practices of the real estate industry.” (Segregation in St. Louis, p. 24)
Those policies impacted not only where people lived, but the kind of wealth they could accumulate as a result. “After World War II, there’s a housing boom, and a baby boom to go along with it,” Purnell says. “White families are able to have that movement subsidized through FHA loans, and the subsidy for that development makes it a Whites-only development, which is responsible for the largest wealth accumulation probably in the history of the world. And those are just some of the policies and practices at federal, state and local levels, with the cooperation of private industries like the real estate industry, the banking industry, and the insurance industry, that create the kinds of segregation that we still have today.”
That segregation means that, “Wherever you are in the country right now, everyone knows — this is where these people live, and this is where those people live,” says Kameel Stanley. Currently a senior producer for USA Today’s podcast, “The City,” from 2015-2019 Stanley was the co-host and co-producer of “We Live Here,” a podcast about race and class from St. Louis Public Radio and PRX.
Wherever you are in the country right now, everyone knows — this is where these people live, and this is where those people live.
“A lot of people walk around thinking that the segregation that we live with today is just about individual racism,” Stanley says. “Yes, people are racist. Yes, certain people don’t want to live next to other people. But I think one of the most important things to know is that, there were policies, government policies, decisions by elected officials that cemented that [segregation], that wrote those rules into place.
“A lot of people with a lot of power all somehow got on the same page to restrict where people lived and to prohibit the movement of Black people.”
Purnell acknowledges the role of personal choice in where people live. “We should note that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with people of the same racial and ethnic group living with one another,” he says. “The problem comes when you’ve decided one of those groups has less value than the other, and therefore, there’s disinvestment in those areas of the region, or of metropolitan areas. But housing segregation is central, because of everything that goes into where you live.
“Because when you look at all the things that flow from where you live, you’re talking about the quality of schools, you’re talking about the very quality of the air you breathe … and the stress that goes with not just instability in a community context, [but also] the stress that goes with walking down a street with vacant buildings, and lots that haven’t been tended to, and what that says about how one is valued, and how one’s neighborhood is valued. So it’s not just these economic and material impacts of residential segregation.”
Stanley says it’s essential to see that policy had a hand in all of this. “And now we’re at a point where those things are so cemented in that when we’re talking about undoing them, then we want to say, ‘Well, it’s up to everybody to just not be racist and to just make diverse communities on their own,’ ” she says. “When it didn’t start that way, why would we think that it would end that way? Why would we think that we would be able to dismantle some of these things just by the goodwill and good-heartedness of everyone in the country?”
While housing, banking and insurance policies nurtured our present-day segregation, other policies now help to reinforce it.
While working on “We Live Here,” Stanley and her team were reporting a story on how nuisance ordinances were used in the St. Louis Region. She spoke with a woman in Maplewood who had been evicted from her apartment. “She was a domestic violence victim, and she had called the police for help a bunch of times,” she recalls. “Later on she finds out that apparently that’s against the rules in Maplewood. If you call the police more than twice in six months, you can be labeled a nuisance. And one of the consequences of that is you can lose your occupancy permit.”
This detail caught Stanley’s attention. “I’m not from this community, but I’m also not a novice reporter and I had covered city government and police departments and all sorts of stuff before. This was not my first encounter with nuisance laws, but this is my first encounter with nuisance laws that seemed to be aimed toward people.”
The nuisance laws she had encountered tended to focus on regulating businesses like nightclubs. But in St. Louis, “We’re saying that this citizen is a nuisance,” Stanley says. “And there had been no distinction about why someone would need to call the police. Turns out, a lot of the people who were calling police for help were domestic violence victims or women of color, were people in medical crisis,” she explains. But their situations did not make them “exempt at all from being kind of caught up in” the enforcement of these nuisance laws.
Stanley acknowledges that a nuisance policy like Maplewood’s usually “starts in a very benign-sounding place: ‘We as a city, as a municipality, need a way to regulate and to make sure that we can do something when there’s a business or an entity in town that’s causing trouble. So we’re going to do this by policy.’”
But even though that policy wasn’t designed to target any one group, it still produced unequal outcomes. Stanley says that can happen when elected officials don’t anticipate unintended consequences, and don’t disaggregate their outcome data to truly understand who a policy impacts.
When she and her team approached the city about the nuisance laws, saying, “‘Wait a second, I know you say it’s for this reason, but why is it that it’s mostly people of color, domestic violence victims, and women who are getting caught up by this? Don’t you think that maybe we should rethink this?’ The city was like, ‘Nah, we’re good.’ They resisted [addressing it] for quite a long time.” (In Sept. 2018, Maplewood’s City Council “introduced an ordinance … that would add protections keeping victims of crimes from eviction and exclude calls to police from counting as a nuisance against residents.”)
Law school alum Javad Khazaeli has also seen how low-level offenses are used to justify policing — especially for certain people in certain communities.
As he worked with protestors clearing warrants, he regularly spoke to clients who “were being fined. They were being charged in ways that their neighbors five, six miles away who were doing the exact same things weren’t getting charged for.”
When he investigated those warrants, he says they didn’t make any sense. “These were almost always cases where the person was pulled over and they eventually got a ticket for either not having a registered vehicle or not having insurance,” Khazaeli says. “But when I’d look at the case, I would never find the underlying ticket as to why they were pulled over. There was never a speeding ticket. There was never running a red light ticket. They were pulled over for some reason and then, ‘Oh, we’re going to hit them with the tickets for being poor,’ because in St. Louis and in Missouri you have to have these registration fees and all of that.”
In St. Louis, “being poor” is often a proxy for something else.
“In terms of the people that we see targeted by the abusive local practices, they are poor people and they are Black people,” says Blake Strode, describing his work with nonprofit civil rights law firm ArchCity Defenders, for which he is executive director. “And we know from all of the research that’s been done that there is a disturbing overlap between those two things. What you had in Michael Brown’s case was a young man who was initially stopped … for essentially jaywalking, for walking in the street. That’s the kind of low-level enforcement that only really gets carried out in poor Black communities.”
That kind of low-level enforcement also traps people in a cycle. After being cited for minor offenses, Khazaeli explains, people he worked with “would have a court date, get hit with a $300 fine, not be able to pay it, [and then get a] warrant because they couldn’t pay it.” But people still need to work, and “we don’t have a good public transportation system … so they’re going to try and get a job, so they’re going to borrow a car. They’re going to drive it. That car is going to be beat down and look like it’s poor. They’re going to get pulled over for a bullshit reason. They’re going to get another ticket.” And so the cycle perpetuates itself.
Though policing has received increased public scrutiny in the last five years, “In public policy, in the institutions and systems and structures that have been created, Black life has been devalued and diminished in every way,” Strode says. “Policing is often the front end of that, but it plays out in housing, it plays out in basic infrastructure, it plays out in climate justice, it plays out in terms of educational equity. Across the board, the systems that are supposed to serve all of us, that purport to serve all of us, actually too often are not serving Black communities, and particularly poor Black communities.”
Adds Strode, “You can think about policing as being the kind of catch-all for every other systemic failure. We’ve created conditions of poverty and crime and sent police in to contain it, and that’s really an injustice for the communities that are being policed in that way. It’s an injustice for the individual police [officers] that are being asked to do this job that they shouldn’t be asked to do, that could actually be more adequately accomplished by providing adequate supports and education and jobs and infrastructure. But instead what we have is relying on this punitive criminal legal system to just catch everything and keep it at bay so that some people can live the American Dream while others sort of suffer in this police state.”
Four years before producing Segregation in St. Louis, and just three months before Brown’s death in Ferguson, Purnell was part of a team of scholars at Washington University and Saint Louis University that produced For the Sake of All, a landmark study released in May of 2014 that measured the impacts of that divide.
“We thought that we would look at disparities impacting African Americans in the St. Louis region and also look at those social determinants that were driving those disparities,” Purnell says. The report “helped people to understand the gaping chasms in life outcomes for people who live very near to one another. The marquee finding that everyone can now quote by heart is an 18-year gap in life expectancy between a baby born in 63106 in north St. Louis city and a baby born in 63105 in Clayton — 67 years and 85 years respectively, in a geography that’s separated by less than 10 miles, a 10-minute drive on Highway 40. And that map of life expectancy that we drew didn’t just fall out of the sky. These were conscious policy choices over several decades that drew that map of life expectancy.
“It ought to be possible no matter where you live in the St. Louis region to find a grocery store, to find affordable housing, to find safe green spaces for recreation, to find transportation to living-wage jobs.”
Though these outcome disparities persist, Purnell says it’s not for lack of a policy blueprint to fix them. “We’re not at a loss as to how to deliver excellent education, we’re not at a loss as to how you create a thriving and viable community,” he says. “What I often say is we don’t have an innovation problem, we have a distribution problem. We know how to do this, we just haven’t decided everybody deserves it. And it’s killing people.”
Purnell’s research has changed his understanding of why St. Louis looks the way it does — as seen in everything from physical barriers, public transportation options, and demographic maps to starkly disparate outcomes in health, education, wealth and criminal justice.
“One of the things that I have come away from the last six, seven years of work really understanding more deeply is that segregation is not grainy Black and White newsreel footage,” he says. “Segregation is not ‘Whites Only’ signs that are now consigned to some Smithsonian Museum case. It’s very much with us. It’s still determining life outcomes. It’s still determining the extent to which people have access to education, and jobs, and income, and transportation, and the quality and the actual length of life.”