Our challenge is to prevent future Fergusons

Les Sterman is chairman of the Domestic Issues Advisory Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. 

By Les Sterman

As protests in Ferguson wane and the criminal justice process proceeds toward a conclusion, an opportunity exists for more careful reflection about the tragic death of Michael Brown and the subsequent demonstrations and related violence.  

Much of the immediate focus will be on the law enforcement and the criminal justice system. We should all hope that meaningful efforts will be made to address inappropriate use of force by police and that effective work will be done to achieve greater racial diversity in law enforcement.  There will be dialogue groups, where people of goodwill come together to try and better understand the meaning of the events in Ferguson. 

While all of that is certainly important and should be done, we should consider that what happened in Ferguson is not a singular event but one that is likely to be repeated if we fail to deal with the underlying conditions that brought it about. 

Consider that in St. Louis, African-Americans are 3.3 times more likely than whites to live in poverty, 3.6 times more likely to die as an infant, twice as likely to be unemployed, half as likely to graduate from college, and twice as likely to have less than a high school education. The median household income for black families is about half that for whites.  To be sure, these statistics are not unique to St. Louis; they are, to some degree, common for America’s metropolitan regions, although on virtually every measure, disparities are greater in St. Louis than the average of our metropolitan peers.  There are similarly wide disparities in other important areas such as health care and housing.  

These statistics come from the work of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments in St. Louis. Every three years since 1992, the agency publishes a report called “Where We Stand,” which compares St. Louis with our metropolitan peers on dozens of variables.  Since the initial edition of “Where We Stand,” East-West Gateway has compiled statistics on racial disparities.  Sadly, in the past 20 years, very little has changed. Measured racial disparities remain one of the region’s most pernicious and intractable problems.

Closing racial gaps in St. Louis is a moral and ethical obligation.  As Jews, we are taught that all humanity is of inherent worth, and so fairness and equity is very much a part of who we are.  The Jewish Community Relations Council and many other Jewish organizations and congregations in St. Louis have a long history of working to relieve poverty and promote greater equality.  The JCRC’s Community Against Poverty initiative brings together a coalition of organizations to combat poverty. Social justice and intergroup relations are principal programmatic and advocacy functions of JCRC and many other Jewish organizations.  The Bohm Social Justice Initiative, the Jewish Fund for Human Needs, and the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations are examples of the programs staffed by JCRC.  The JCRC is beginning a process to better understand the causes and effects of income inequality, a process that we hope will lead to action.  

Even with all these good works, the statistics show we are simply not doing enough.  Income inequality is growing.  The explosive growth of low-wage jobs (full-time jobs whose annual earnings fall below the poverty line for a family of four) requires hard-working people to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, leaving less time to nurture a family.  

We are disinvesting in public education at all levels.  Missouri leads the nation in reducing the number of people on food stamps and Medicaid, not as a result of greater prosperity, but by tightening rules for eligibility.  Our history of geographic division once designed to exclude minorities, now acts to contain and isolate them in communities that cannot provide decent public services. Voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting disproportionately affect minorities.

The problems are complex and will require sustained effort by the government, private-sector, nonprofits and the faith community to overcome political, racial and interfaith barriers.  We must find the will to both tolerate and overcome disagreement and controversy.  We need to demand more of our elected leaders.  It is simply not enough anymore to focus legislative work on further securing rights to own guns or pray in school, while so many in our community are hurting.  

The events in Ferguson should serve as a vivid warning that the levels of racial disparity in our community are not sustainable.  St. Louis will not grow and prosper until all of our citizens fully participate in our economy and have the opportunity to raise healthy families with higher expectations for the future.  

As we search for an appropriate response of the to the tragic death of Michael Brown, we should be guided by the words penned by the leadership of the St. Louis Jewish community in their joint statement: 

“We all must redouble our efforts to combat racism, poverty and economic inequality, so that every individual, no matter the circumstances of his or her birth, has a chance to live a decent, meaningful life.”