During last year’s Democratic mayoral primary, I was regularly asked by a diverse cross-section of the black community, “Why can’t black politicians get behind one candidate in order to capture the Mayor’s Office?” A corollary question was always, Why can’t the black community come together?” Inherent in those questions was the implication we have always done this, because we’ve always had to do this. So what has happened to us that we can no longer do what used to come so naturally?
I realized the answer to their questions was tied to a question I had asked Eric Vickers some seven years ago. That question was: Are we still a black community? Given the importance of the question for us in St Louis and black Americans nationally, I want to put the answer in a proper historical context.
The answer begins with an examination of the not-too-immediate past. It’s impossible to understand the present condition of St. Louis’ African-American community without an understanding of the last 100 years of St. Louis. What has happened to us is, in large measure, a function of where it happened. So let’s take a look at where it happened.
In 1900, the population of the United States was 76 million and St. Louis was the fourth-largest city with a population of 575,000. Fifty years later, the country had doubled in size to 150 million. St Louis’ growth didn’t match the country’s, but its population still increased by roughly 35 percent, to 850,000 which made St. Louis the 10th-largest city in the country. This is an important inflection point, because it’s the high water mark of St Louis as a major city. It’s all downhill from there.
So what does the data tell us today? Some 309 million people lived in the United States in 2010, about four times the 1900 total. In 2010 the City of St. Louis was ranked 61st in population, with 320,000 residents. Today there are 250,000 fewer people living in St. Louis than were living here in 1904.
Lest you believe St. Louis County exists in some alternate universe where it enjoys some different historical narrative, let’s be clear: From 1950 through 2010 (that’s 60 years), the combined population of city and the county has been constant, between 1.3-1.4 million people. St. Louis County’s population only got bigger because the City of St. Louis’ population got smaller.
There are a lot ways that economists measure economic growth, but the best way for non-economists to think about growth is as a function of population. If more people are born and came here than died or left, you’re growing. Sustainable economic growth is a function of the demand created by expanding populations.
Parochial protestations notwithstanding, this is all one place. And it’s all one place where the population has remained stagnant, while the country’s population has grown by multiples. This lack of real growth – a 100 years of economic decline, really – is the defining feature of St. Louis and the specter that haunts every policy debate.
Military commanders will tell you their battle plans are as good as their reality-based intelligence. The same is true for political strategies. All public policy strategies make economic assumptions, more often implied than expressed, that make them viable. And economic viability is one of the elements that separates a plan from a fantasy. Any long-term public policy plans that ignore the long-term historical economic realities of its operating environment will not and cannot succeed.
For the last 40 years, the vanity of St. Louis’ white business and political leadership has produced an unbroken chain of failure based on flawed strategies that ignore reality. They believe, or at least claim, that St. Louis is a great city – one big project or governmental reform away from reclaiming its lost glory. Whether just naive or delusional, they have been wrong, and their failure has been largely at the expense of the African-American community. And for the record, there are no great cities of 320,000 people; 320,000 people is a neighborhood in Chicago.
Why is St. Louis not more like Atlanta?
Whatever the decisions black communities make are a function of the options available to them at the time. Other than climate and geography, nothing defines available options more than economics.
When you think about the economy of a city, you really need to deal with the economics of the region in which the city is located. The fate of St. Louis has always been and will continue to be a function of the economic strength and vitality (or lack thereof) of the St Louis region.
A metropolitan statistical area (MSA) is a rather imprecise but commonly accepted way of looking at metropolitan areas. An MSA is defined to include not only a city, but also surrounding suburban, exurban and sometimes rural areas, all of which have an economic relationship to one another. I want to use this matrix to illustrate that the economic and social wellbeing of the black community is often a function of forces completely beyond its control. Or what happens to you is in large measure about where it happens to you.
Atlanta is a city we’ve talked about my entire four-decade public career. Invariably, we say things like, “How come we’re not like the black community in Atlanta?” or “if white folks here were like white folks in Atlanta, this would be a different place.”
Let’s look at Atlanta and its MSA. In 1950 the population of the City of Atlanta was 331,000, and the Atlanta MSA population was 997,000. The city’s population peaked in 1970 at 497,000 but declined to 394,000 in 1990. Today Atlanta’s population is 420,000, but that’s not the number that matters: The population of the Atlanta MSA is 5.7 million people in approximately 8,300 square miles. To give you a frame of reference, the population of the entire state of Missouri is 6.1 million people.
If you notice, Atlanta’s peak population was half the size of St. Louis’ peak population, and during the 1980s and 1990s Atlanta also experienced population decline. But the Atlanta MSA during that period remained one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. Atlanta today is not appreciably bigger than St. Louis; both represent a small percentage of their MSA’s population, Atlanta 7 percent and St Louis 11 percent. So, relative to their size and in relationship to their respective MSAs, they are they are quite comparable. So what’s the basis of the large disparity?
Here’s the comparative analysis that matters. As of 2010, the St. Louis MSA covered 8,400 square miles, the exact same size as the Atlanta MSA, with a population of 2.8 million people. That’s the same geography with half the people. In 1950 the St Louis MSA was 1.7 people and Atlanta’s was less than a million, 997,000. By 2010 the American population doubled, but the St Louis region grew by less than half, the Atlanta region grew five-fold.
This population explosion was the driver behind Atlanta’s explosive economic growth and it’s what changed Atlanta. When a region experiences large sustained in-migration, it forces a change in the regional culture. The new residents bring a different history and different experiences that the existing regional culture must accommodate, and that changes the place and the people. There’s some truth to the statement about Atlanta having different white people. These newcomers’ integration with the Atlanta they found created the Atlanta we see today. As the late Peter Drucker so brilliantly and insightfully pointed out, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast every morning.”
The lack of sustained in-migration in St. Louis means almost everybody here has always been here. In 1950, this was a culturally and politically conservative, racially backward metro region. In 2018, St. Louis is pretty much the same place it’s always been, minus the economic muscle.
Political leadership makes a difference, but it cannot create reality. The late Maynard Jackson was a brilliant politician and a transformational mayor; his tenure became the standard by which black mayors are measured. But the black community in Atlanta is what it is today because Maynard Jackson had the intelligence, grit and skill to take advantage of the hand circumstances dealt Atlanta. St. Louis has not produced a Maynard Jackson, and if we had, he would not have had Atlanta’s cards.
An effective African-American political strategy depends upon an accurate historical understanding of the St. Louis environment. But it also requires something else: a better understanding of who we are as a people, and how did we become the people we are today.
The context of the black experience
If you want to understand why black St Louis – or black America, for that matter – is what it is today, you have to understand the historical macro forces that influence an ecosystem.
We have the tendency to think of ourselves in constant terms (all people do, really) because the current reality is the only reality we’ve ever experienced. But the black community of today is the product of a cultural evolution that spans 400 years in North America. In order to understand why we’re struggling to develop a consensus on a political and public policy agenda that speaks to our collective interests, you need to know why we are who we are today. That requires an understanding of the context of the black experience in America.
The United States really is a country of immigrants. Historically, the bulk of the American population was composed of European immigrants who voluntarily came to America in search of not just a better life but a new life. They brought with them their European identities and cultures, but after a few generations these identities were erased and their ancestral cultures were absorbed into a homogenized American culture. They gave up their specific European national identities and became white Americans.
Until 1965, when passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act changed the demographic destiny of America, the preceding was always true except for two notable historical exceptions. Native Americans were the indigenous population of North America, but the genocide perpetrated by European immigrants decimated their numbers and the reservation system made them marginalized prisoners in their own land. And then there’s us.
In a perverse way we’re also American immigrants, except we didn’t choose to come here. We were forcibly brought here for the sole purpose of providing labor for America’s early-stage capitalist development. While the institution of slavery is as old as human history, what was done to enslaved Africans in America was uniquely evil. We lost not just our freedom and the benefit of our labor, but were robbed of our historical identities and even the very idea of ourselves as human beings.
The context for understanding the black community of today begins with recognition and acceptance of this historical reality. The question is: How do we access and comprehend this historical reality in a way that enhances our understanding of our contemporary circumstances? From my perspective, the black experience in America can be divided into three clearly defined periods.
From 1619 to 1864, I refer to as our Period of Enslavement. The second period, from 1865 to 1965, is Post-Civil War. The third period, the one in which we currently live, is Post-Civil Rights. These historical periods have unique characteristics that differentiate them from each other, but are part of a continuum that contextualizes the black experience in America.
The Italian philosopher and politician Benedetto Croce said, "All history is contemporary history," meaning the study of the past is always connected to our need to understand and rationalize our current circumstances. In 1619, disparate groups of people from the continent of Africa were forcibly brought to North America; this is where the contemporary history of today’s black community begins.
We didn’t choose America – or each other
The root of community comes from the Latin communis, which means shared in common. A community can be defined as a social unit that shares common norms, values, language or religion that are the foundation of an identifiable culture that creates a shared identity. They also share a sense of place. This is important because it’s the culture that transfers the identity from generation to generation in that specific geography that supports and maintains the community.
We are inherently social animals, but specific communities are not preordained. They evolve as the response of groups of individuals to the physical conditions of their environment. The black community of today has its genesis in the response of groups of individual Africans and their descendants to their enslavement in North America.
What separates the black community from everyone else in America is how we came here. Malcolm used to say, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us!” Unlike everyone else, our ancestors didn’t come to America by choice; they were violently extracted from Africa so their labor could be exploited in America. We didn’t choose America; America chose us.
“You Can Never Go Home Again” is the title of a novel by Thomas Wolfe. The title of this novel captures the other foundational reality of the black community: Once we got here, we couldn’t leave. Everybody from Europe came here voluntarily, including indentured servants, and they all retained the theoretical possibility of returning to their ancestral homelands. Our ancestors never had the option of leaving and, like Wolfe’s protagonist, had no home to return to.
Nothing speaks to this alienation more poignantly than the exchange between T’Challa and Killmonger in “Black Panther.” T’Challa offers to bury the dying Killmonger in Wanka, Killmonger refuses because he recognizes that Wanka, like America, is not his home either. I know where of he speaks: I live in America, but America is not home. I’ve felt as much a stranger, but more welcomed, in China and France than the United States. Home for me is what’s left of this black community.
Our ancestors were given a new identity by their captors; they became Negroes because they were slaves. And by inference, to be a Negro was presumed to be a slave. Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir “Twelve Years A Slave” illustrates the impossibility of anyone black escaping the logic of this paradigm. Black life and liberty in America has always been at risk to the arbitrariness of white men. The only thing separating Solomon Northup from Michael Brown is time.
Today’s black community is a function of overt, structural, systemic oppression of a group of human beings around the social construct of race. But as they say in Jurassic Park, “life will find a way,” so like Sisyphus we struggled against the absurdity of our condition and created a new identity and culture out of the chaos of racism and slavery.
Central to our identity and culture was the inseparability of the fate of the black individual from the destiny of the black community. It’s this historical fact that makes us a community, but it also makes us a community formed by someone else’s hand. Just as we didn’t choose America, we didn’t choose each other either.
And it’s this historical reality that is impacting how we have and haven’t navigated the 21st century. It’s the social construct of race, and the oppression associated with it, that must be the basis of our political organizing until race is no longer a social construct or at least no longer the basis of oppression.
We were brought here against our will, we were enslaved and robbed of our labor, we were stripped of our historical identities; all this because we were black. The reality is we didn’t know we were black until we got to America. Black is the identity we’ve assumed and given meaning to in the struggle to reclaim our humanity against the oppression of American racism.
Why we are – or were? – family
The black community was forged in the crucible of slavery, but our modern political culture and identity were shaped in post-Civil War America on the anvil of Jim Crow. To understand the historical political development of the black community, you must recognize the only thing the defeat of the Confederacy changed for us was our legal status.
Though the 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery throughout the United States, factors such as Black Codes, white supremacist violence, and selective enforcement of statutes continued to subject black Americans to involuntary labor and considerably less than the equal protection of the law.
It is from this reality over the next 100 years that the modern black political identity was formed. The bonds of community formed to survive slavery would also be the bulwark of the black community’s defense in apartheid America. The response to living with nominal freedom in Jim Crow America also produced a different leadership model for the black community than the one that evolved in white America.
The American cultural ideal is the preeminence of the individual over the community. Right-wing America raises reverence for the individual to a religion or a fetish, take your pick. The most dominant right-wing political American political value is that the purpose of government is to remove any constraints on rich white men to do as they damn well please, even at the expense of the common good. The 14th Amendment was drafted to insure newly emancipated blacks would be guaranteed equal protection of the law, but it has been used many more times to expand the legal rights of corporations, including constitutionally recognizing corporations as persons.
Despite the myth-making that passes for the teaching of American political history, the American political leadership class has always been singularly focused on supporting and sustaining economic privilege. White political leaders are generally creatures of personal ambition; the key to advancing their ambition is to be of service to the economic elites that dominate American life.
Because of how we were introduced into the North American narrative and the role we were assigned, we couldn’t and can’t assume that the way America works for white people is the way America works for us.
While white America’s model was based upon the atomized individual, the model for black America was communal. After the Civil War we were no longer chattel property, but what emancipation and slavery had in common is we were still black and oppressed. No amount of individual initiative or personal achievement could change what it meant to be black in America. As they used to say, “What do they call a brotha with a PhD in Mississippi (or, for that matter, Missouri)?”
The black leadership model was not driven by personal ambition (though these were talented, ambitious men and women), but by the need to change and uplift the condition of the entire black community. Black leadership understood that as long as we were oppressed as a group, the American notion of individual liberty was a fiction.
Even before emancipation, black leadership had a community-centric focus. Fredrick Douglass and Sojourner Truth escaped slavery, yet risked their lives and freedom in the struggle to abolish slavery. Black scholars like DuBois, Frazier, and Woodson, devoted their lives to the serious intellectual study of black life. The artist and writers of the Harlem Renaissance were singularly focused upon the legitimacy of a black aesthetic. The honor role of black patriots who pledged and risked their lives, their fortune and their scared honor on behalf of our struggle is too long to note.
While there were serious disagreements, even fissures, among black leadership on tactics and strategy, for 100 years there was never any argument about the mission. Even through the 1960s into the mid-1980s, the raison d’être of black leadership continued to be the protection and advancement of the black community.
It’s why in 2018 we still have this instinct, that we as a community can get behind a common agenda to advance our collective interests. But something changed, The questions are: What? And why?
Are we still a black community?
You could argue that the black community was unified around one mission for 100 years after emancipation: civil rights. While the 13th Amendment eliminated our status as property, the 14th and 15th amendments made us full citizens, in theory. The reality of American white supremacy reasserted itself through a system of apartheid called Jim Crow that used physical intimidation and the rule of law to deny black Americans their inalienable rights.
Securing civil rights for us as a community was the only way to guarantee we would ever enjoy them as an individuals. Because the one thing that hadn’t changed was we were all still equally oppressed under the yoke of white supremacy. After emancipation, there developed a symbiotic relationship between members of all strata in the black community and between the black leadership class and the black community with a single focus and mission: whatever you do, however you do it, advance the race.
In the 1960s we finally defeated Jim Crow and began to enjoy the status of full citizenship. Or so we thought. Jim Crow yielded to civil rights, but we never laid a glove on our real enemy, white privilege.
But civil rights did change things. In fact, it changed everything and in ways we could have never anticipated. After civil rights, black Americans began to experience personal choice for the first time in our 350 years in North America. While the choices were restricted at first, as we discovered the market and the market discovered us, those choices expanded. We could exercise our personal options independently of each other and without regard for each other. We began acting just like white Americans, but they had the advantage of white privilege and we were still black and would soon find ourselves without the benefit and protection of the black community. Because with every one of those individual choices, we became less a community and increasingly unable to defend our collective selves against American racism.
Nowhere is this change more evident than the changing nature of black institutions and black leadership. The black church went from the civic foundation of the black community to struggling to maintain relevancy and membership in historical black communities. Black preachers went from civil rights leaders to prosperity pimps.
Another institution undergoing radical negative change was politics. Historically on their worst day, black politicians were committed to advancing the race. Black politicians were much like star athletes in team sports. In team sports an athlete is ultimately judged by how he or she contributes to the success of the team. Your individual stats only have meaning as a function of team success. You cannot be a great player if play on teams that are regularly unsuccessful.
Before this post-Civil Rights era, black leadership in general and black political leadership specifically were judged by this standard. The community never begrudged you personal success, and in fact it would bask in your reflected glory. However, they judged and valued political leadership based upon how it advanced the collective interest of the community. The community’s won/loss record was more important than an individual political leaders points per game.
Black politics used to be focused on issues that had broad-based importance to the entire black community, like housing, jobs, education and health care. When is the last time you’ve heard a black political argument around these issues? But if we all had a dollar for every minute black politicians have spent on minority business participation over the last 30 years we’d all be rich. I have nothing against black wealth creation, but I must have missed the meeting when we made creating black millionaires and billionaires our top political priority, and I don’t think working-class black folk were even invited. While I’m happy for Oprah, Beyoncé and JZ, black trickle-down economics doesn’t work any better than white Republican trickle-down economics.
Black politicians no longer see politics as a team sport; this is the simple answer to what happened in last year’s mayoral race. We could not do what we used to do because that’s not who we are anymore. Our time in post-Civil Rights America has been like Israel wandering around the desert after leaving Egypt. During our enslavement and after emancipation, we knew who we were and what we were to each other. That’s no longer true.
Which speaks directly to another negative change in post-Civil Rights black America. Who is black leadership and who picks it? One of the important traits of a community is shared space. The most radical consequence of the individual freedom to choose is we no longer share the same space. This has had profound negative consequences for the black community when it comes to leadership.
Historically black people could choose black leaders, the black community determined who it thought would best represent its interests in the power struggle with white America. That’s because black Americans who had the skill, training and resources to provide leadership, by necessity, lived in the black community.
But no more. As a class black leadership, by and large, no longer lives in the black community; they live in integrated communities. As American civic life has become more inclusive, it’s white people that decide which black persons will represent the interests of black people to white America.
We are entering as volatile and potentially dangerous time as any in the lifetime of most of us, and never has the estrangement of black leadership from the black community been greater. This is probably the first time in our history that established black leadership can’t speak for or to black people.
‘The strength of the wolf is the pack’
Donald Trump and his evil minions are not an anomaly or an apparition, they are emblematic of the reoccurring phenomenon of the evil of white supremacy that’s endemic to American culture. We have experienced this vitriol at least twice in the last hundred-plus years.
The first time was the white supremacist response to Reconstruction. The nascent attempt to establish citizenship for newly emancipated blacks was violently rejected. Blacks in the South were forced to live under Jim Crow, America’s apartheid system, because non-Southern white Americans found justice for newly minted black Americans too much trouble. It’s worth noting that while black Americans were being newly re enslaved under Jim Crow, America was actively implementing genocide on Native Americans.
The second time we’ve experienced this kind of virulent and violent white reaction was the period during and after WWI. More than 350,000 black Americans fought in WWI to make the world safe for democracy. The greatest fear among white supremacists was they would return home demanding, and maybe prepared to fight for, full citizenship.
So what was this reaction? An epidemic of race riots – crazed armed white men attacking defenseless black men, women and children, burning and destroying their communities. Think East St. Louis, Omaha, Chicago, Tulsa.
Then there’s the white community’s other favorite community event of the day, lynching black men, women and even boys, followed by the burning and desiccation of their bodies for the amusement and pleasure of the assembled white mob, which often included children. Lynchings were such a scourge that black Americans petitioned the federal government for relief, to no avail.
Lastly, the massive expansion of Confederate Civil War monuments happened during this period as a reminder to black Americans of the power of white people and the proper place of black people. It was during this period that America also instituted a race-based quota system for immigration.
But we not only survived these white supremacist assaults, but actually prevailed in this political, cultural death match. Despite the horrific origins of the black community in America, we created a community that was intelligent, strategic and resilient. We beat America’s worst because we were smarter and tougher. It was a community that, no matter how adverse the conditions, had the structural integrity to protect its children and prepare them to prevail in America, despite America. We were unified in the face of the enemy. It was this indivisibility on the issue of race that was the key to survival and victory.
But that’s not who we are in 2018. Over the last 40 years, in our rush to integrate into white America, millions of us abandoned the black community. I’m not just speaking about physically, but emotionally and psychologically as well. Because of this, we are considerably weaker going into this next political death match against America’s most deplorable.
We need a new theory of the case, a new paradigm, of what it means to be black in America. The theory has to address a new fundamental fact: This is no longer a white country, and short of a genocide (which white Americans are capable of), it will never be white again. The question at the beginning of the 21st century is: Can we produce a critical mass of black thinkers, writers, scholars and artists who will do for us now what that cohort led by W.E.B. DuBois did for us at the beginning of the 20th century?
This has been a lot, but of all of it, there’s one thing you must remember, and I didn’t write it. It’s from “The Jungle Book,” a 19th century book of fables by Rudyard Kipling:
"Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.....
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association.