One state — Missouri — stands out as the site of two of the most pivotal moments in the resurgent national discussion on race: the unrest in Ferguson and the protests at the University of Missouri.
That Missouri is at the heart of the country’s recent racial tensions is no coincidence.
Although other states face similar challenges, Missouri’s status as a border state between the North and South makes it one of the country’s most fertile breeding grounds for racial strife. The state suffers from some of the worst racial pathologies of both regions.
At the same time, that environment spawned a vibrant tradition of African-American activism, which contributed to the rise of a contemporary civil rights movement that got its start in Missouri. Now African-American-led efforts to address longstanding racial grievances elsewhere in the country have taken their cues from the Show-Me State.
A Border State — For Better, Or Worse
Colin Gordon, a historian at the University of Iowa and author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, characterized Missouri as a kind of unfortunate sweet spot for racial resentment. On the one hand, Gordon said, Missouri has a tradition of anti-black racism and white supremacism more typical of a former slave state. On the other hand, it has levels of housing segregation, and its attendant social ills, more characteristic of Northern states.
It is not surprising, Gordon noted, that Baltimore, a city in a similar border state, was the site of another one of the country’s most explosive incidents of race-based unrest.
“It is the border states where race relations are at their tensest,” he said. “That is particularly true of Missouri, though, because it is a funny sort of state — a couple of big cities and then the Ozarks.”
Clarence Lang, who chairs the African-American studies department at the University of Kansas and authored Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936 to 1975, offers a largely similar analysis of the confluence of factors that have made Missouri especially racially volatile.
But Lang emphasized that Missouri’s St. Louis-based civil rights tradition has also laid the roots for positive change in the state.
“There is definitely a long tradition of protests and resistance among African-Americans in St. Louis and Missouri that recent events are bringing to light,” Lang said.
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