The Latin phrase “Time Danasos et dona fermented” – which means “I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts” – has become the commonly used phrase “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” The phrase, from the Roman poet Virgil’s retelling of the Trojan War, refers to how the Greeks tricked the Trojans to win the war. It very aptly applies to how the black community should view the Better Together proposal for merging the City of St Louis and St. Louis County.
The business leadership of St. Louis has long believed the only thing that stands between the St. Louis region and greatness and prosperity is the fragmentation of the region’s local governmental structure. Nothing could be further from the truth, but there is a reason St. Louis business leaders gravitate to this argument. Whether you went to America’s best or worst business school, you’re taught that every problem has three possible solutions: reduce personnel, reorganize the operation, or reorganize the operation and then reduce personnel. The Better Together proposal would reorganize the operation and reduce personnel.
St. Louis’ business leadership also seems to believe that St. Louis is just one big project from getting back in the game. That explains the breathless pursuit of professional teams and stadiums and transformational development schemes of one sort or another. Successful cities and regions do have these things, but these things didn’t make them successful. These things are the evidence of their success, not the cause of it.
If the real cause of St. Louis’ malaise is, instead, lack of vision by St. Louis’ leadership, then they would have to hold themselves accountable and the public would hold them responsible. But that would require a level of honest introspection that appears to be in short supply.
But suppose you’re not part of St. Louis’ business leadership. Suppose you are an African-American citizen of St. Louis city or county. There is no problem – not one – that St. Louis’ African-American community faces that can be solved by a structural reorganization of local government. Conversely, there’s no problem – not one – confronting the African-American community that can be solved with the existing local government structure.
There is no rational defense of St. Louis’ local governmental arrangements. If you gave any number of people a blank piece of paper and asked them to design a local governmental structure for St. Louis, no one could come up with what we currently have. There are any number of academic or elite business interests reasons for not supporting the status quo. But what’s the black reason for not supporting it?
First, black people didn’t design it and it wasn’t designed with our benefit in mind. To the extent the black community was given any thought, it was how this structure hampers or retards black progress. But there is another, more important reason for the black community to not support the current political arrangement: it dilutes black political power and undermines black political influence.
African-American elected officials in St. Louis County control little patches of real estate that are politically irrelevant. This didn’t matter 50 years ago when African Americans first moved to St. Louis County in large numbers because of the political and economic status of the City of St. Louis. Fifty years ago the city was the economic and political center of gravity of the region and the majority of African Americans lived in the city. More importantly, this black community was a highly organized and tightly focused political force that exercised outsized political influence that kept the agenda of black people a major variable in any economic or political discussion about the St. Louis region.
But that’s not today’s reality. In 2019 the majority of the region’s African Americans live in St. Louis County, and the City of St. Louis is shell of its historic economic and political self. So what does this mean for the region’s African-American community?
For the political power of minorities to be effective, it must be concentrated and focused. The key to black progress is not white benevolence but the ability of the black community to organize and amplify its political power to affect economic and public policy to its own benefit. With the city’s decline and the way St. Louis County is structured, black political power is fragmented and black political influence is nearly nonexistent. So unless your political aspiration for the black community is how many black mayors or police chiefs we can have in small, powerless municipalities, the current arrangement has no credible black defense.
So if the current arrangement is indefensible, why is the Better Together proposal unsupportable?
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts
Given the history of the relationship between civic leadership and the black community, I’m hard-pressed to think of a great civic endeavor proposed to advance the region that accrued to our benefit. So what is allegedly a gift of this magnitude offered for the wellbeing of the African-American community – that is, to eliminate all of the cash-strapped municipalities running predatory police departments and courts – should make you seriously consider calling the bomb squad.
In 40 years of active political life, I have always obeyed the rule: Never take a public position in support of a major policy position unless you can define a concrete benefit for black people. There is an important corollary to this rule: White people cannot define the black benefit.
Better Together’s proposal totally decimates structural African-American political power in the St. Louis region, leaving the black community completely politically defenseless against adversarial economic and political interest.
Let’s start with the city. African-American politicians have effective political control of the City of St. Louis. If the city’s African-American community is disappointed or dissatisfied with the results of the last 30 years, it’s a personnel issue, not a structural issue. That structural advantage is eliminated in this proposal.
In St. Louis County, a fairly useless municipal structure becomes completely worthless. The little bit of municipal political nothing that the African-American community controls is reduced even further. The St. Louis County Council, where Hazel Erby and Rochelle Walton Gray are major power brokers, is eliminated.
With this proposal, the entire political footprint of the African-American community is eliminated. Who gets to decide what takes its place? My father used to say, “Whoever counts the money first keeps the most.”
In the Better Together plan, if you’re African-American you don’t decide anything. There is zero consideration given to how the political interests of the black community would be structurally accommodated in executing the transition.
Then who gets to decide? The execution of transitioning to the new Metro City would be the exclusive responsibility of Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Steve Stenger. Think about that for a moment.
In a city that’s nearly 50 percent African-American and a county that’s at least 25 percent African-American, a proposed new Metro City would be at least 30 percent African-American. This is in a region whose modern history includes legally segregated public schools, landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions overturning discrimination in housing and employment and that the world now associates with the police killing of Michael Brown. To provide for no formal structural opportunity for the African-American community to represent its interests in a change of these historical proportions is beyond comprehension.
And then consider the current mayor and county executive. Rarely have we seen two people more poorly suited for an assignment as these two are for this. Even in the hands of highly skilled and popular master politicians with full community support, implementing this change would be a monumental task.
In professional sports there are often points in a season when a team will have a players-only meeting because there are issues that need to be addressed and that can only be resolved by players. There was a time around here when the African-American community regularly had the political equivalent of players-only meetings. It was always when white civic leadership was pushing an issue, and before black civic leadership would respond they felt the requirement to collectively discuss the matter, even if they couldn’t reach a consensus. The decision to go our separate ways on an issue was collectively arrived at.
This may sound strange to the inclusion generation, but there was a time in St. Louis when the black community could make a decision for itself without consulting white civic leadership. And more importantly, there was a time when white civic leadership knew it couldn’t make a decision for the black community.
There seems to be an impenetrable level of arrogance in St. Louis’ civic leadership that makes it inherently start every public enterprise with the wrong assumption. That assumption is that their position of privilege means they don’t have to consult with nonwhite or non-privileged stakeholders when they are considering an idea.
Shelia Williams, who is now a member of the Normandy Schools Collaborative board, once said something that perfectly captures what I’m trying to say: “If you do something for me without me, then you’ve done something to me.”
The arrogant refusal to accept this fundamental premise in dealing with the black community is partly why St. Louis has gone from a major-league region to a dysfunctional minor-league one. In 2019 you have white civic leadership playing the game with a 1959 mindset. No governmental reorganization is going to fix that.
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 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.