Many people are cynical about whether the governor’s Ferguson Commission will lead to meaningful reform. Public opinion is deeply divided. The St. Louis area was almost evenly divided between those who supported and those who opposed the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. According to polls, whites and blacks have very different perceptions of the police. Add to this the divide between Republicans and Democrats, and there is good reason to fear that the polarization will paralyze action.
We represent a group of scholars from three local universities (University of Missouri-St. Louis, Washington University and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville) working to insert scholarly research into public dialogue. We do not claim that we are unbiased; professors are biased like everyone else! But we have spent many years, in some cases decades, researching public policy issues and political processes. Research, by itself, cannot create consensus out of polarized opinions, but it can help to clarify choices, highlighting what works and what doesn’t.
We have written five commentaries on the Ferguson Commission’s “calls to action.” We summarize them here but encourage readers to visit the Post-Dispatch website at stltoday.com/news/opinion to read them in their entirety.
The German sociologist Max Weber once wrote that one of the contributions of social science is to insert “inconvenient facts” into policy discussions. The Ferguson Commission has insisted that we keep the “inconvenient fact” of racism front and center as we think about our responses to Ferguson. In her commentary, Dawna Williams points out that racism is a historical fact. At one time, restrictive covenants forbid many St. Louisans from selling their homes to black families. Because of this shameful history, people still have deeply ingrained stereotypes. Even today, when African-Americans move in to a neighborhood, many whites flee — even before they have met one of their neighbors. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Until we face up to this history and our prejudices, the region will never move forward.
Todd Swanstrom’s commentary focuses on the interaction of race and place. Extensive research shows that living in areas of concentrated poverty has negative impacts on people’s lives, after controlling for their individual characteristics, including race. The number of concentrated poverty neighborhoods is increasing. Research also shows, however, that 35 neighborhoods in the St. Louis area have been able to rebound from urban decline. The one element common in all rebound neighborhoods studied was deep civic engagement by the residents. One way to address the issue of concentrated poverty and racial inequity is to give communities the tools to lift themselves up. Swanstrom discusses a proposal, Invest STL, to do just that in St. Louis.
Two commentaries emphasize the importance of citizen participation for local community building. Laurie Rice and Andrew Theising praise the commission for its inclusive process that engaged local residents and organizations over many months. Research shows that involvement in community-based problem solving institutions, like the Ferguson Commission, helps people develop the civic skills needed to more effectively influence public policy.
David Kimball highlights the importance of voting in municipal elections, particularly in light of commission recommendations for reforms of highly punitive municipal traffic fines and court practices. When residents feel that local government is preying on them, they are less likely to participate in the political process. Voter turnout in St. Louis County municipal elections has been a paltry 15 percent in recent years. When voter participation is low, municipal officials may feel they can do whatever they want — setting in motion a vicious cycle of voter apathy and abuse of power. The best way to improve voter turnout would be to move local elections from April to November of even-numbered years, when federal and statewide elections take place.
Michael Sherraden and Jason Purnell address the Ferguson Commission’s recommendation for child development accounts. CDAs are investment accounts for long-term goals, like college education, funded with initial deposits of $50 to $500. Parents and children can then contribute to the accounts, and with interest and additional savings the accounts grow over time.
One mother told the researchers that having a modest development account for her child “gives me ... a little bit of relief that something has begun, you know, and hopefully very soon we can add to that.” We feel the same way about the Ferguson Commission. “Something has been done” and we can “add to that” for the future. St. Louisans need to set aside their cynicism, roll up their sleeves, and put into action what works for a more prosperous and just region.
Todd Swanstrom and David Kimball are professors in the department of political science at University of Missouri- St. Louis.