The Two Very Different Worlds of Ferguson

The white community is worried about the city’s image. The black community wants justice.

Pay any attention to the lawns and storefronts near downtown, and you’ll notice a new detail in the landscape: The “I ♥ Ferguson” sign. 

Photo by Jamelle Bouie

FERGUSON, Missouri—We know the general public has widely divergent views of the Michael Brown shooting. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 80 percent of blacks say that the shooting raises racial issues, compared to only 37 percent of whites. The same goes for views of police conduct toward the Ferguson protesters. Sixty-five percent of blacks say police went too far responding to protesters, compared to just 40 percent of whites.

When you consider the segregated lives of most blacks and most whites, this makes sense. Most white Americans live near other white Americans, and most black Americans live among blacks. Work notwithstanding, there’s not much overlap between the two worlds.

“Overall,” writes Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, “the social networks of whites are a remarkable 93 percent white.” In fact, he points out, “fully three-quarters of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence,” a level of social homogeneity unmatched among other racial and ethnic groups.

In which case, of course blacks and whites have different views of the Brown shooting. Separate social lives means few whites are privy to the mistrust and fear that inform the black relationship to law enforcement.

Which brings us to Ferguson.

Pay any attention to the lawns and storefronts near downtown, and you’ll notice a new detail in the landscape: The “I ♥ Ferguson” sign. You’ll find a few on West Florissant, where the protests were, but they’re ubiquitous around the downtown core, dotting homes and businesses as a public declaration of pride for the recently besieged town.

And that’s the point. The signs are a starting point for a general campaign—based in the dining room of the Corner Coffee Shop—to show a better side of Ferguson.

“Who can deny that what happened is a horrible tragedy that no one would ever, ever wish on a family, an individual, or a community?” said Chris Shanahan, who was part of a group selling T-shirts with the “I ♥ Ferguson” logo. “I think [the T-shirts] became something to help certain people in the community remember that they still like this community despite certain things that have been shown on TV.”

Behind the signs and T-shirts is Friends of the City of Ferguson, a group started by former Mayor Brian Fletcher, who held office from 2005 to 2011. “You look at Wikipedia and go to the ‘History’ and Michael Brown is the whole thing,” he said over the phone, “We’re trying to show what Ferguson is really like.” So far, Fletcher and the group have sold more than 3,000 T-shirts and raised more than $13,000, which they plan to use to help local businesses repair damage to their stores and stay in the area.

Along with the rapid progress of this group’s campaign is the explosive growth of the Internet fundraiser for Officer Darren Wilson. Thousands of donors have given more than $220,000 to a gofundme.com campaign for Officer Wilson, who is on paid administrative leave. The comments in support of Wilson range from banal (“This is for Darren Wilson to use in any way he sees fit”) to racially charged (“All self-respecting whites have a moral responsibility to support our growing number of martyrs to the failed experiment called diversity”) to outright racist.

On Thursday, the Friends of the City of Ferguson held a public forum at First Baptist Church, where a mostly white group of supporters voiced concerns and offered ideas for progress. “Among their less-drastic suggestions for bringing progress to the community: Holding a parade, executing a beautification project along the city’s black corridor, and getting a large group to make a viral video on social media of residents taking the ‘Icebucket Challenge,’ ” notes Fusion’s Errin Whack, who attended the event.

Meanwhile, at Greater St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church near West Florissant, a largely black group of young people and older residents discussed ideas for moving forward and changing the status quo. “I would like to see more emphasis on investing in stock or putting your money in the bank, so that people understand you can do just as much as these white people within your community,” said Trevor Woolfolk, a student at nearby St. Louis University. “A year from now, I would like to see empowerment. I would like to see uplift, I would like to see consciousness,” added Chris Walter, another student.

For what it’s worth, the church sits next to a small neighborhood of modest, one-story homes. The Friends of the City of Ferguson have yet to leave their mark.

The two-mile drive from First Baptist to St. Mark’s takes six minutes, and as far as distance goes, they’re practically neighbors. But if the dueling meetings show anything, it’s that they live in different worlds. White Florissant—or at least a vocal slice of it—believes the issue is image. Black Florissant, by contrast, believes the issue is justice.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Ferguson.