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Published by EH.Net (May 2024).

Colin Gordon. Citizen Brown: Race, Democracy, and Inequality in the St. Louis Suburbs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019. 200 pp. $29 (paperback), ISBN 978-0226760889.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Dan Giedeman, Grand Valley State University.

 

Colin Gordon has written a provocative book on the disparate treatment of Black residents of suburban municipalities of St. Louis, Missouri. The book’s primary thesis can be found in its introduction: “African Americans in St. Louis County were (and are) targets of public policy rather than its beneficiaries, a problem to be solved rather than a population to be served, subjects rather than citizens” (p. 10). Gordon’s writing is concise and accessible to a popular audience. In just under 150 pages of primary text, he provides a convincing argument that municipalities implemented policies that, both explicitly and implicitly, resulted in African Americans being viewed and treated as less than full citizens of their local communities.

Gordon (the F. Wendell Miller Professor of History at the University of Iowa) is well-positioned to have written this book. He has published extensively on the post-war history of the St. Louis region in both academic journals and popular periodicals with a more recent focus on the racial (and racist) elements of this history. Citizen Brown is the second of three books that Gordon has written on this topic, the first being Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (2008) and the most recent being Patchwork Apartheid: Private Restrictions, Racial Segregation, and Urban Inequality (2023).

Gordon opens his book with a series of four vignettes that provide an evocative look at incidents relating to the treatment of African American residents of suburban St. Louis County. Of these cases, the one with which readers will likely be most familiar is that of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson in 2014. It is from this incident that the book derives its title. Each of these stories is linked to one of the book’s main chapter themes regarding how the meaning of “citizenship” as interpreted and practiced by local municipalities has differed by citizens’ race.

The first main chapter, “Fragmenting Citizenship,” relates the history of municipal growth in St. Louis County and how it isolated Black communities from the development that was taking place in the region. The general pattern was that as the population expanded out from the city, subdivisions were built in unincorporated areas of the county with private developers setting standards on things such as house and lot sizes, limits on multifamily housing, and race-restrictive deed covenants. Residents of these developments then would move to incorporate into what were typically small municipalities. Gordon argues that these municipalities would then use the basis of “home rule” to establish local zoning standards that effectively sorted the county by income and excluded by race. Municipalities had little difficulty annexing adjacent unincorporated areas when they felt it in their best interests. While there were several unincorporated areas with a predominately Black population, the upshot of municipal incorporation and annexation was that these areas, most notably Elmwood Park and Meacham Park, became separate enclaves within the county. Gordon argues that the isolation of these African American communities was intentional and based on the proposition that the Black residents of these areas were out of place in the county suburban landscape. This general sentiment can be seen in a quote Gordon provides from a former mayor of the city of Kirkwood several years after Kirkwood’s 1991 annexation of Meacham Park, “That was a city ghetto sitting in a suburban community, now it looks like a normal neighborhood.” (p. 48).

The second chapter, “Segregating Citizenship,” examines the unequal provision of public services by race across and within municipalities. Foremost among these was public education. Gordon details how school segregation persisted long after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, due to existing segregation in housing and the creation of new school districts whose borders were specifically delineated by race. The building of, or rather the lack thereof, sewage lines to and in Meacham Park is highlighted as a case study of how public services were not provided to all county citizens equally. The chapter also discusses the provision of public safety, a topic which is more fully addressed in chapter four.

In Chapter 3, “Bulldozing Citizenship,” Gordon contends that municipalities, under the auspices of “urban renewal,” undertook redevelopment projects that had an intended side effect of pushing Black residents from the communities. Local officials identified Black neighborhoods as substandard or blighted and thus valid targets to be condemned, razed, and redeveloped into something more desirable. It was evident that whatever it was that would be more desirable, it would almost certainly not be improved homes designed to rehouse the residents being displaced. To further compound the residents’ injury, relocation assistance was often absent, despite federal guidelines stipulated that it be provided to all affected households.

The last major chapter of the book, “Arresting Citizenship,” focuses on how worsening fiscal conditions led municipalities to engage in what Gordon calls “predatory policing” to bolster revenues. The deterioration in local budgets was the result of several factors, including increasing costs of public services and stagnant property values. Municipalities also engaged in beggar-thy-neighbor policies such as tax abatement policies in what were often futile attempts to attract or retain businesses. To fill the fiscal void, municipalities looked to fines from traffic stops and code violations to generate revenue. Gordon argues that the local police departments viewed Black residents as targets for funds rather than as citizens to protect and that encounters with police “send powerful messages about citizenship—about who deserves protection and who deserves suspicion.” (p. 145)

While the book is written for a lay audience, Gordon is fastidious in citing his sources and provides readers with forty pages of endnotes. The book also contains several dozen maps to illustrate situations and trends occurring within the St. Louis region. Unfortunately, in my paperback copy of the book, some of the more detailed maps were not as legible as one might hope. However, there is a digital companion to the book freely available online, which offers much clearer versions of the maps. This online resource, which Gordon somewhat inexplicably doesn’t highlight in the book itself, may be found here: https://scalar.usc.edu/works/citizen-brown/index.

In summary, Citizen Brown provides an important look at how local municipalities can implement a de facto two-tiered system of local citizenship based on racial grounds. Gordon does a good job of laying out how this system came into being, explaining why it has persisted, and describing some of the effects it has had on Black residents of these communities. Because Gordon’s focus is not on offering policy recommendations that might address these issues, readers might be left with questions of what, if anything, can and should be done to make all citizens be considered and treated as full citizens of their communities. Overall, the book is well-written and thought-provoking; while the focus is on the St. Louis region, similar conditions certainly exist in many other metropolitan areas across the United States. As such, I highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in gaining a better understanding of how racial inequalities can be engrained in local societies. At the risk of being snarky, I even more highly recommend the book to anyone who is not interested in gaining a better understanding of these issues.

 

Dan Giedeman is Professor and Chair of Economics in the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University and recently finished a five-year term as Co-Editor of Essays in Economic & Business History. He is personally familiar with the St. Louis metropolitan area having grown up in the region and gone to Washington University in St. Louis for graduate school.

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