Over the next 12 months, St. Louis’ African-American community will participate in three elections that will play a major role in defining the contours of our future possibilities. In August, they will play a decisive role in who will be the next St. Louis County executive. They may again determine who controls the United States Senate as a function of their level of participation in the November election. And in March of next year, they will decide the makeup of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the city’s executive fiscal body.
Given the importance of these upcoming elections, I want to contextualize a question I’m regularly asked: “Why can’t black politicians get the on the same page,” or “Why can’t the black community come together?”
The answer begins with an examination of the not-too-immediate past. It’s impossible to understand the present condition of St. Louis’s 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 the population still increased by roughly 35 percent and the city’s population of 850,000 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? That 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 has only gotten 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 doubled. 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 assume an economic environment, more often implied than expressed, that makes 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, St. Louis’s 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 lost glory. Whether 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.
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.
To be continued.
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.