Caucasian St. Louisans are to white flight as Kenyan runners are to the Boston Marathon. Volumes have been written about the ability of white St. Louisans to empty out a region, or as a former colleague from Fox 2 once said, “Yeah, a black family moved in seven blocks away and my parents ended up in Ellisville.”
An entire library wing could be devoted to white flight in the Gateway City. From James Neal Primm’s 1998 Lion of the Valley to Colin Gordon’s 2009 Mapping Decline to 20 years of the Where We Stand reports from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, entire shelves have been devoted to the mpbp (miles per Black person) fuel efficiency of area whites. But, with typical Midwestern modesty, St. Louis’s white people refuse to take any credit for the highest rate of building and neighborhood abandonment over a 30-year period in North American history, and instead defer all the praise to the area’s Black folks, who they say are really the ones responsible.
Flash back to 1996, when, still a St. Louis newbie with barely a year here under my belt, I interviewed Tom Brown, the mayor of St. Peters, on my KMOX talk show and brought up white flight and the suspicion that his town’s growth might have been fueled by white people who wanted to put as much distance between themselves and the melanin-rich as possible. The mayor bristled at the suggestion and said his growing constituency was made up largely of victims.
“A huge number of people who moved to our city,” he said flatly, “were literally driven from their homes. They fled looking for a better life.”
What at first seemed like a description of the Serb army clearing out part of Bosnia was, in reality, one of my first encounters with the white rhetoric of grievance and victimhood in greater St. Louis, a rhetoric that is all about race but hardly ever explicitly mentions race. As Kevin Kruse noted in his 2005 book White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, the use of implicit euphemisms when talking about race is common among white flight suburban conservatives, which leads to the kind of coded racial language the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater, famously outlined in a 1981 interview with a professor from Case Western Reserve University.
“You start out in 1954 saying n----r, n----r, n----r,” said Atwater. “By 1968, you can’t say ‘n----r’ anymore…so you say things like ‘forced busing’ and ‘state’s rights’…now you’re talking about totally economic things…saying ‘let’s cut this’ is more abstract than busing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘n----r’.”
St. Louis whites often specialize in that sort of abstraction. Whether it’s St. Charles County voters 1996 refusal to approve Metrolink expansion, or south St. Louis County residents upset over construction of low-income housing for the elderly in 2012, obviously racial issues in the region (Metrolink=mass transit=Black people; low-income housing= Black people) are discussed without mentioning race at all.
This wordplay moves otherwise racist sentiments into mainstream discourse, but it also serves as a surrogate for sentiments of white rage and grievance, so that angry sentiments of white victimhood can be expressed without referring to race explicitly. But plain English translations reveal the truth: many middle and working-class white St. Louisans feel they were driven from their homes by a tsunami of lawless, violent black people moving into their neighborhoods, depressing property values and destroying public institutions like schools and parks.
The refugee syndrome that Mayor Brown spoke about has become tribal lore among many working class and middle class whites, stories about how they, or pops, or grandpa had to flee Walnut Park or Hyde Park or Pine Lawn and sell at a big loss when the black thugs moved in. They’re the same kinds of stories used to justify apartheid in David Harrison’s 1981 book, The White Tribe of Africa, a study of the power of white Afrikaners in South Africa.
Given that, conversations with the white community in St. Louis about race and racism will only go so far. To them, the problem is not a racist system. The problem is the degeneracy of black people.