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Speakers series confronts racism in education, housing and more

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 14, 2009 - Political science professor Terry Jones and others challenged the faith community on Saturday to work harder to address educational and housing inequities that stem from race.

Jones, a professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, was the keynote speaker at the Living Justice Speaker Series at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church ballroom, 3628 Lindell Boulevard.

He traced the racial history of education in Missouri, beginning with state laws against teaching blacks to read and write and ending with the St. Louis desegregation program. “We are prisoners of history, but we can escape by working on its impact,” Jones said.

He chastised the public for reacting passively to the challenge of ending segregation in schools.

“We did not rise up to say to our government that we have sinned and we need to correct these things. We looked the other way.”

Not until the Liddell case did the region react by creating the interdistrict settlement that opened up school opportunities in St. Louis County to black students in St. Louis.

Unfortunately, he said the region eventually dropped the ball.

“That was a good program, in my judgment; it created a significant amount of opportunity. But after 18 years, many started asking how long do we have to do this.”

That led to a negotiated settlement, he said, that sharply reduced the number of blacks attending county schools. “We got tired. We are majority of the electorate. As a majority, we backed off the level and intensity of our commitment in terms of access to education.”

Jones also said blacks in the region had been shut out of housing opportunities, beginning with practices that confined the rising black population at the start of 20th century to the Ville and Mill Creek. Ultimately, the region, like others, experienced an explosion of housing in suburbs. This development, Jones said, allowed whites to rise up the class ladder and accumulate wealth. But he said blacks were generally shut out of this wealth because they were denied access to suburban housing opportunities.

“That deprived African Americans of the biggest two decades of wealth accumulation in the United States history. They got a two-generation late start on that path.”

Jones’ speech was followed by a discussion about racism in St. Louis by four panelists: John Wright, a retired school superintendent; Will Jordan, head of Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council; Val Patton, executive director fo the Saint Louis Business Diversity Initiative; and Mary Fox, from the Missouri State Public Defender System.

All cited ways people could help the region solve racial problems. Some noted that the problems themselves weren’t always racial. For example, Fox told the story of being in a St. Louis courtroom last week and watching a judge handle a line of black defendants who pleaded guilty to various crimes.

“He barely looked up at people he was about to send off for 10 years,” she said. The questions included whether the defendant had finished high school and where did they go to school. Most mentioned a range of public high schools, she said.

Then, she said, one defendant said that he had gone to St. Louis University High. “The judge looked up and he took a break. He told the attorneys he wanted to see them in the back.”

She said, “A lot of people walk in the doors of the criminal justice system and we don’t look up to see who they are unless there’s something about them that we can relate to. When a person has gone through a private school system or has a good educational background, suddenly they (the judges) see somebody with the same educational background and they realize that by the grace of god go I. And they ask ‘why is he here and what can I do to make certain that we help him.’ ”

She said she didn’t regard the judge’s behavior as racist. She said the incident spoke mostly about human nature.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.