Whether or not we like to admit it, race shapes everything about life in the United States of America today. From where we live to the quality of schools we attend, from the likelihood of becoming a Fortune 500 CEO to the likelihood of being incarcerated, from how others perceive us to how we respond to others, whether consciously or unconsciously. Race is critical to what sociologists call “life chances,” or the opportunities we get to improve our well-being over the course of our lives.
In many ways, race is tied to class. Consider, for example, the racial wealth gap in this country: according to the Pew Research Center, in 2014 the median net worth of white households was thirteen times that of black households and ten times that of Latinx households.
Home ownership has been key to wealth accumulation for the majority of Americans, but black and Latinx families are less likely than white people to own their home.
Even when black and Latinx families own their homes, longstanding practices of residential segregation by race typically mean that those homes are valued significantly less than similar homes in predominantly white neighborhoods. When the location of those homes in predominantly black neighborhoods interferes with white wealth accumulation, as happened in Meacham Park, black residents tend to be pushed out.
While race and class often overlap, race alone can have significant effects on life chances. This is particularly striking for individuals caught up in the criminal justice system. Although the majority of people in this country are white, Black and Latinx people make up the majority of the incarcerated population.
Most of this disparity in incarceration cannot be attributed to racial differences in criminal behavior. In the case of drug crimes, for example, black people make up roughly 13% of all illicit drug users (proportionate to their share of the US population), but more than a third of all people arrested for drugs and nearly half of all people convicted for drug offenses.
In the case of Cookie Thornton, who killed six people in Kirkwood in 2008, race is significant in a number of ways. He was an early proponent of Kirkwood annexing Meacham Park: according to criminologist Andrea S. Boyles, whose 2015 book “Race, Place, and Suburban Policing” focuses on Kirkwood, Thornton was a key Black ally in favor of annexation. Thornton’s support for the project waned, however, when the construction contracts he thought he had been promised failed to materialize.
As KSDK reported after the shooting rampage, Thornton received 79 citations from the city of Kirkwood between 1996 and 2008, including 59 in 2000 and 2001. As he made clear in repeated protests and lawsuits, he believed that the city was persecuting him and that officials were motivated by racial animus.
Though Kirkwood officials and numerous courts denied both charges, Thornton’s perceptions tragically won out.
While Thornton’s violence cannot be justified, his anger is at least somewhat understandable, rooted in the betrayal he felt as a black man who sought repeatedly and unsuccessfully to improve his life chances against all odds. Whether or not local law enforcement unfairly targeted Thornton, Boyles found considerable evidence of punitive policing practices toward black residents in Meacham Park/Kirkwood.
In the end, the annexation that Thornton had championed resulted in many of the original (predominantly Black) residents of Meacham Park leaving the area as their homes were bought out or seized through eminent domain.
Ultimately, race matters. We must take that seriously – and work to reduce racial disparities in life chances – if we hope to ever live up to this country’s lofty ideals of justice and freedom for all.