Spring 2015 Bulletin

Ferguson and the Meaning of Race in America

Douglas Steven Massey

Editors’ Note: We are inaugurating a new feature in this issue of the Bulletin: notes and short essays written by Academy Members on their current work or on new developments or topics of interest in their fields and professions. We invite all Members interested in contributing to “On the Professions” to contact the editors of the Bulletin at bulletin@amacad.org. We hope that this new feature will be a medium through which Members address one another and share in the excitement of each other’s work.

As we all know, on August 9, 2014, an eighteen-year-old black male named Michael Brown was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb just outside of St. Louis. The killing led to much civil unrest locally and widespread demonstrations nationally, and set off a national debate on the state of American race relations. Whereas media pundits and news reporters focused on what Michael Brown and Officer Wilson may or may not have done that fateful afternoon, as a sociologist I looked to the structural context in which the encounter occurred to make sense of the events.

The structural context for race relations in St. Louis, as in other metropolitan areas with large black communities, is one of longstanding and intense residential segregation. With the mass migration of blacks out of the rural South and into cities during the first half of the twentieth century, ever-higher levels of residential segregation were imposed on African Americans such that by 1950, the black ghetto was a characteristic feature of urban society.1

No other ethnic or racial group in the history of the United States has ever experienced the degree of residential segregation and spatial isolation that was routinely imposed on African Americans by the mid-twentieth century. Based on a standard index that varies from 0 (when blacks and whites are evenly distributed across neighborhoods) to 100 (when blacks and whites share no neighborhood in common) black-white segregation averaged 88.4 in the North and 90.1 in the South in 1950. In St. Louis, the index stood at 92.9.2 The only other place where racial segregation this durable and intense has been documented is the Union of South Africa under Apartheid.3

Although the black ghetto was well established as a structural feature of American cities by mid-century, black neighborhoods throughout the nation underwent a dramatic geographic expansion between 1950 and 1970. Aided by federal outlays for highways, income tax deductions, and government-insured loans from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA), whites moved en masse out of cities to occupy the burgeoning suburbs being constructed on the urban fringe, while African Americans from the South moved into the neighborhoods the whites left behind. Black suburbanization was precluded by the fact that both the FHA and VA prohibited lending to black borrowers and to black neighborhoods, practices that set the standard for the entire lending industry. Even if a black borrower could somehow scrape together the money to purchase a home, racial discrimination was institutionalized throughout the real estate industry.4

Despite massive redistribution of urban populations during the postwar period, levels of black-white segregation hardly changed. As of 1970, the average level of black-white segregation across 287 metropolitan areas stood at 77.6, and in St. Louis the index was 85.0. Moreover, in a subset of U.S. metropolitan areas, African Americans were highly segregated across multiple geographic dimensions simultaneously, a pattern Nancy Denton and I labeled hypersegregation.5 In these areas, not only were African Americans unevenly distributed in space, they were also largely confined to all-black neighborhoods that themselves clustered together in a densely packed contiguous zone near the urban core. St. Louis, of course, was a hypersegregated metropolitan area.

Because black individuals and neighborhoods were cut off from capital and credit, once a residential area became black it inevitably began to deteriorate physically. Those areas that had gone black the earliest experienced the longest period of disinvestment, meaning that the process of deterioration began in the core of the ghetto and over time spread outward toward the periphery, creating areas of widespread abandonment and profound deprivation within an otherwise expanding economy. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that American cities were swept by successive waves of racial violence during the 1960s. In response to the rioting, Congress finally acted to combat housing segregation by passing the 1968 Fair Housing Act, though it was prompted to do so only in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination. It was followed in 1974 by the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which banned discrimination in mortgage lending, and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which prohibited discrimination against black neighborhoods.

In order to secure congressional passage of these pieces of legislation, however, their authors were forced to strip away the enforcement powers originally intended for federal authorities. Thus, in each case, the only remedy for victims of discrimination was to file a civil lawsuit to prove discrimination in federal court, obtain a cease and desist order, secure punitive fines, and collect damages. But over the years, relatively few lawsuits have been filed, fewer have gone to trial, and even fewer have resulted in a conviction. Moreover, the racially biased landlords unlucky enough to be convicted generally received small fines and very modest damage awards. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that audit studies have consistently shown that high levels of clandestine discrimination continue to pervade the U.S. housing and lending markets.

Over the course of the civil rights era, white racial attitudes nonetheless did change and principled support for segregation waned. Whereas in the early 1960s, 68 percent of white Americans believed that blacks should go to separate schools, 60 percent felt that whites had a right to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods, and 54 percent endorsed racial segregation in transportation, by the 1980s these percentages had fallen to 4 percent, 13 percent, and 12 percent.6 Although whites gradually came to accept the idea of a race-blind society in principle, they remained uncomfortable with its implications in practice. Integration was tolerated only insofar as it did not bring whites into frequent contact with many black people. In opinion polls, as the relative number of blacks in a social setting increased, ever-larger shares of whites replied they would seek to leave or refuse to enter.7

In the years since the civil rights movement, therefore, metropolitan areas with small black populations have moved steadily toward integration while those with large black communities have not.8 Shifts toward integration were especially pronounced in smaller, newer metropolitan areas containing colleges and universities (higher education is associated with racial tolerance) and military bases (racial tolerance in the military is mandated by command). In contrast, segregation levels in large metropolitan areas containing large black populations have stubbornly remained high, especially in areas with older urban centers surrounded by suburbs with density zoning regimes that prohibit the construction of multiunit housing. Metropolitan areas that fit this profile also tended to remain hypersegregated, and one-third of all black metropolitan residents continued to live under conditions of hypersegregation in 2010.9

As of that date, the St. Louis metropolitan area still satisfied the criteria for hypersegregation, with an average index value of 77.4 across the five geographic dimensions of segregation, making it the third most racially segregated city in the United States, behind only Milwaukee and Detroit. Given that segregation works to concentrate economic deprivation spatially for groups with high poverty rates, the average black resident of metropolitan St. Louis in 2010 lived in a neighborhood in which 42 percent of all residents earned less than thirty thousand dollars – an exceedingly high spatial concentration of poverty.

Over the past six decades, St. Louis has followed the classic trajectory of a large, older metropolitan area with a significant black community surrounded by independent white suburbs. Whereas in 1950 the bulk of the area’s residents lived in the city – which was 82 percent white and, of course, hypersegregated – over the next six decades, the city population fell from 857,000 to 319,000 while the white percentage dropped to 44 percent, even though the greater metropolitan area itself grew from 1.5 million to 2.8 million and remained 77 percent white: which brings us to Ferguson.

Although the white city population fell continuously from 1950 onward, the black population continued to grow through the 1990s. But over the last two decades, even the black population has begun to decline in response to the years of color-coded disinvestment that have steadily eroded the physical integrity of the black ghetto from the inside out. Although the pace of white population loss exceeded that of blacks until 2000, the rate of black decline since then has surpassed it. From 2000 to 2010, a net of 21,000 African Americans left the city, compared with just 12,000 whites.

The exodus was led by middle-class African Americans who sought improved residential circumstances in close-in suburbs such as Ferguson. Ferguson is an older suburb in which the median age of housing is fifty-five years. It was part of the first wave of postwar suburban construction and its population peaked at 29,000 in 1970, when it was just 1 percent black. Over the ensuing decades, the city population gradually dropped, reaching roughly 21,000 in 2010. Replicating the experience of St. Louis, this population decline was accompanied by an increase in the black share of the population, which stood at 67 percent in 2010, well on the way to incorporation into the St. Louis ghetto.

Such rapid demographic change has naturally led to a stark mismatch between a still overwhelmingly white municipal bureaucracy and a predominantly black resident population. In addition, the racial tensions inherent in such a mismatch were exacerbated by the emergence of a new form of credit discrimination that emerged in the 1990s. Whereas black neighborhoods had historically been systematically “redlined” by banks and thus excluded from mortgage lending, they have more recently become favored targets for a lending process that has become known as “reverse redlining” or “predatory lending.” In predatory lending, black borrowers who qualified for conventional loans were instead channeled into high-cost, high-risk subprime mortgages that were extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of the housing market, leading to the disproportionate concentration of foreclosures in black residential areas. Indeed, the single most important factor predicting the number and rate of foreclosures across metropolitan areas is the level of black-white segregation.10

The innovation that transformed the home lending industry was the invention of mortgage-backed securities. Whereas in the past banks made loans directly to borrowers who repaid them over time in monthly installments, mortgages today more often originate with brokers who quickly sell them to large financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, who, in turn, bundle them together into bonds that are sold to investors. As a result, the number of mortgages a bank generates is no longer limited by total bank deposits, but by whatever the market for mortgage-backed securities will bear. In addition, the risks of lending are borne by investors, not by brokers or financial institutions. These actors simply serve as middlemen who make profits by originating, bundling, and selling mortgages, rather than collecting interest on the loans themselves. Moreover, even if a financial institution chooses to buy mortgage-backed securities, it can insure against loss through a credit default swap in which a third party, such as AIG Insurance, agrees (for a fee) to pay off the bonds in the event of default.

Together, mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps created what economists call a “moral hazard” in which brokers, banks, and financial institutions have strong incentives to generate as many loans as possible irrespective of a borrower’s ability to repay and to steer as many customers as possible into subprime lending products, which carry higher interest rates, larger fees, and inflated repayment structures. Under these circumstances, formerly excluded black communities such as Ferguson became prime targets for predatory lending, housing a striving middle-class black population with incomes and homes that can be capitalized through refinance loans. The middle-class status of Ferguson’s black community is indicated by the fact that the number of college graduates rose from 19 percent to 30 percent from 2000 to 2010 as the population shifted from half to two-thirds black.

Compared with whites, African Americans in places like Ferguson were far more likely to receive home equity loans and, regardless of their financial circumstances, were far more likely to be steered into riskier, costlier, and generally more unfavorable lending terms. As a result, the inevitable housing bust put African Americans at greater risk of insolvency. In the course of the recession, massive amounts of home wealth were transferred away from black households and communities and into the pockets of financiers in faraway financial centers like New York.11 Home values in Ferguson fell by around 10 percent, foreclosures proliferated, and home ownership dropped from 67 percent to 59 percent. At present, half of all homeowners are “underwater,” owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. The economic fragility of the community is evident: median household income in Ferguson dropped by 14 percent in real terms between 2000 and 2010 – despite the rising share of college graduates – and the poverty rate more than doubled from 12 percent to 25 percent.

The economic devastation of communities like Ferguson led to two ancillary developments relevant to understanding the meaning of the events there. First, encouraged by foreclosures and a proliferation of underwater properties, outside investors swept in to buy distressed homes on the cheap and convert them into rentals, often leasing to families that before the crisis had themselves been homeowners. Second, the decline in home values and incomes put downward pressure on municipal revenues from property and sales taxes, prompting officials to allocate more resources to traffic enforcement as a revenue-generating strategy. Traffic enforcement generates money not only from fines, but also from penalties and interest on late payments, as well as court costs and garnished wages when arrests are made and forfeiture when contraband is found during a traffic stop. In the three fiscal years prior to 2014, municipal court revenues in Ferguson rose by 80 percent and came to constitute 13 percent of the total municipal budget. Under such circumstances, it is little wonder that in a recent poll, 70 percent of blacks nationally said that police do a poor job of treating the races equally and only 31 percent of blacks believe police do a good job of protecting people from crime.12

Thus, the encounter between Michael Brown and Officer Wilson occurred against a backdrop of intense racial segregation and predatory lending that devastated the black community economically. Aspiring middle-class black homeowners saw their hard-earned wealth flow into the pockets of distant, wealthy white financiers, while they themselves were displaced into rented homes they formerly owned, while also being purposefully harassed by white police officers seeking revenue to pay the salaries of a mistrusted white municipal bureaucracy. In this tense, racially charged context, any encounter between a white police officer and a young black male has the potential to escalate out of control, thereby setting fire to the tinderbox of racial inequalities and longstanding grievances that pervade the St. Louis region. Owing to the continuing reality of racial segregation in the nation’s large urban black communities, America’s racial divisions are by no means a thing of the past. Communities such as Ferguson are simply conflagrations waiting for the right sparks to ignite them.

Douglas S. Massey is the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 1995.

© 2015 by Douglas S. Massey



1. Douglas S. Massey, Jonathan Rothwell, and Thurston Domina, “Changing Bases of Segregation in the United States,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 626 (1) (2009): 74–90.

2. Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

3. Douglas S. Massey, “Segregation and the Perpetuation of Disadvantage,” in The Oxford Handbook of Poverty and Society, ed. Linda Burton and David Brady (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2015).

4. Massey and Denton, American Apartheid.

5. Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, “Hypersegregation in U.S. Metropolitan Areas: Black and Hispanic Segregation along Five Dimensions,” Demography 26 (3) (1989): 373–393.

6. Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence D. Bobo, and Maria Krysan, Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).

7. Camille Z. Charles, “The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation,” Annual Review of Sociology 29 (2003): 167–207.

8. Jacob S. Rugh and Douglas S. Massey, “Segregation in Post-Civil Rights America: Stalled Integration or End of the Segregated Century?” The DuBois Review: Social Science Research on Race 11 (2) (2014) (published online March 1, 2013), doi:10.1017/S1742058X13000180.

9. Douglas S. Massey and Jonathan Tannen, “A Research Note on Trends in Black Hypersegregation,” Demography (published online March 20, 2015), doi:10.1007/s13524-015-0381-6.

10. Jacob S. Rugh and Douglas S. Massey, “Racial Segregation and the American Foreclosure Crisis,” American Sociological Review 75 (5) (2010): 629–651.

11. Jacob S. Rugh, Len Albright, and Douglas S. Massey, “Race, Space, and Cumulative Disadvantage: A Case Study of the Subprime Lending Collapse,” Social Problems (forthcoming 2015).

12. Pew Research Center for People and the Press, “Few Say Police Forces Nationally Do Well in Treating Races Equally” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2014), http://www.people-press.org/2014/08/25/few-say-police-forces-nationally-do-well-in-treating-races-equally/ (accessed January 1, 2015).