VIDEO: STL Has a Cameo in New Short Documentary on Segregation by Policy

By on April 13, 2019


by Tom Finan
Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

When it comes to the four pillar issues that we founded Construction Forum STL to address — diversity/inclusion, workforce, regionalism, and collaboration — my mantra after five years has become, “You can’t dumb this stuff down.”

For example, in addressing the challenge of bringing non-traditional workers into our industry, barriers — ranging from education, to healthcare, to nutrition, to mental health and opioid abuse, to transportation — collectively form an almost impenetrable mesh that impedes forward progress. According to a new short film, we should add past government policy that reinforced segregation in housing, and the need to reserve the after-effects of those policies.

St. Louis plays a cameo role in a just released documentary film Segregated by Design. The film makes the case that the effects of  past government policy — local, state, and federal — shaped and, unless remedied, will continue to shape racial segregation  in St. Louis Region and other major metros as much or more than any endemic racism among the region’s residents.

The seventeen-and-a-half-minute film (available for viewing in its entirety by clicking below) is narrated by Richard Rothstein, fellow in the Economic Policy Institute and former New York Times reporter. Rothstein is the author of the 2017 book, The Color of Law, which addressed the issue of racial segregation empowered by government policy.

Rothstein’s narration of the film begins, “In the middle of the 20th Century, the City of St. Louis, MO and the United States federal government condemned and demolished the neighborhoods in Downtown St. Louis where African Americans lived, displacing thousands.”  The brief introduction repeats a story that most older native St. Louisans know by heart. It is a story has been chronicled in the past in books like Colin Gordon’s 2009 book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

The Case for Addressing the Past

There has been a significant amount of pushback from the African American community to the notion of restructuring St. Louis City and St. Louis County government as proposed by Better Together. If you apply the context of the African American experience with what Rothstein describes as de jure housing segregation by federal, state, and local  government throughout the 20th century, their misgivings at ceding any amount of enfranchisement it is understandable.

This short documentary packs a ton of information into its brief narrative. It  makes the case that diversity creates more intellectually robust, productive, healthy, economically strong urban regions. Rothstein observes that while many of the policies that created de jure segregation and the people who created them are long gone, we must address the lasting impact those past policies have had on African Americans and on our cities. He cites mandates for change under the 5th 13th, and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“Our focus,” Rothstein says, “should be to develop policies that promote an integrated society, understanding that it will be impossible to fully untangle the web of unconstitutional equality we’ve woven.”

You can’t dumb this stuff down.


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