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White political domination of Ferguson is doomed

Michael B. Thomas

The events of August 2014 in Ferguson, MO are primarily important not because they are so unusual, but because the backdrop is in most respects so banal. From the excessive militarization of the local police forces to the structural racism of the criminal justice system, we are dealing primarily with problems that are all too familiar.

But there is one exception. In Ferguson — unlike in every state and most towns in the country — African-Americans are not a minority. The town is 67 percent black, it just happens to have a government that's overwhelmingly dominated by whites including the mayor, the police chief, the school board, and the bulk of the city council. And while many of the deeper issues in American society exposed this month are unlikely to be resolved any time soon, this one is. The town's white power structure is almost certainly doomed.

Jeff Smith, a professor at the New School in New York who until recently served as a State Senator from the St. Louis area recently explained how whites have maintained their grip on North County towns with black majorities:

Many North County towns — and inner-ring suburbs nationally — resemble Ferguson. Longtime white residents have consolidated power, continuing to dominate the City Councils and school boards despite sweeping demographic change. They have retained control of patronage jobs and municipal contracts awarded to allies.

The North County Labor Club, whose overwhelmingly white constituent unions (plumbers, pipe fitters, electrical workers, sprinkler fitters) have benefited from these arrangements, operates a potent voter-turnout operation that backs white candidates over black upstarts. The more municipal contracts an organization receives, the more generously it can fund re-election campaigns. Construction, waste and other long-term contracts with private firms have traditionally excluded blacks from the ownership side and, usually, the work force as well.

These kind of tactics depend crucially on an atmosphere of public apathy and mass indifference to local politics. Americans are asked to vote in a baffling array of elections (in addition to a school board and a town council, a Ferguson resident must vote for a district attorney, a county executive, a county council, two state legislators, a governor, a lieutenant governor, an attorney general, a secretary of state, a state auditor, a state treasurer, two US Senators, one member of the US House of Representatives, and a bunch of judges) and the level of information and enthusiasm about most of them is low.

As Zachary Roth has written, typically, fewer than 15 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in municipal elections in Ferguson. Ian Milhiser observes that the low turnout is in part a consequence of the city choosing to hold municipal elections in April of odd-numbered years.

That makes patronage-based get-out-the-vote campaigns incredibly effective in controlling the levers of power. But if the past couple of weeks have done anything, they've shattered those background conditions of indifference. Nobody who lives in the area could possibly think that local government doesn't matter any more, and a community capable of organizing nightly protest marches should have relatively little trouble getting people to come out and vote. And if Ferguson's African-American residents do vote, they should have relatively little trouble installing a government that hears their concerns and leans against the systemic inequities in the American criminal justice system.

In other words, the town at the center of this drama may well see a real improvement in political representation. The deeper problem is going to lie elsewhere — in the many towns large and small where people of color are a minority of eligible voters and the basis of white political power is firmer.

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