Academics worry Better Together diminishes black representation


Better Together’s proposal promises a streamlined metropolitan government. St. Louis academics question who the proposal will cut out.

A person interviewed for this story, Atem Richardson, uses singular they/them pronouns.

Webster senior Atem Richardson’s impoverished family had to choose between healthcare and education for their child.  Richardson blamed their struggle on the inefficiency and inopportunity of a divorced St. Louis City and County. Despite this, Richardson remained skeptical of Better Together’s proposal of the promised economic revitalization of a remarried St. Louis City and County.

Dr. Terrence Jones, professor emeritus of public policy administration and political science and Dr. James Brasfield, a political science professor, questioned who the proposal will benefit.  They said they believed Better Together’s proposal could diminish African-American representation in the St. Louis area government.

Better Together’s proposal would hinder efforts from local elected officials like Beyond Housing, Jones said.  Locally elected officials started Beyond Housing to “build better communities” in the 24 municipalities in the Normandy School District.

Racial representation in Louisville worsened dramatically after Louisville’s city-county merger in 2000 according to Jones.

Brasfield, former mayor of Crestwood and professor emeritus of Webster, is president of CitiesStrong, a local nonprofit alliance supporting regional collaboration and local decision-making.

Brasfield said there have been accusations that mergers in cities like Louisville and Indianapolis happened because, as those cities approached an African-American majority, white power groups didn’t want to be part of a predominantly African-American city.

Brasfield said he believed one way to encourage more local leadership and also address economic prosperity is to merge some of the smallest municipalities to create cities of 15,000 to 20,000.

“You would create a more viable administrative structure, but you would maintain local control because you would have local government, a local mayor, and the same kind of access that people here in Webster Groves and University City enjoy.”

Jones declined to say what he thinks a better plan would be for a merger of St. Louis City and County. Instead, he invited people outside academia to share their views.

Richardson said they wanted Ferguson protesters to be part of that conversation.  Many African-Americans in St. Louis have already lost faith in the current system according to Richardson.  Empowering these voices will lead to a better solution, they said.

“We need everyone at the table for this conversation,” Jones said.

Richardson grew up in the Walnut Park neighborhood of St. Louis City.  Richardson said they lived within walking distance of McCleur South-Berkeley High School and Jennings Senior High School, both accredited St. Louis County districts.  

Despite this, Richardson began every morning of high school waiting at the bus stop by 6:15.

Richardson lived within the unaccredited St. Louis Public School District where they attended Central Visual and Performing Arts School, a magnet school almost eight miles from their home.  Programs existed to allow city residents to send their children to accredited schools in the county. However, the nearest high school accepting out of district students was Clayton High School for Richardson, also around eight miles from their home.

While the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation would have provided Richardson with transportation to and from Clayton High School had they considered attending, Richardson said there’s more to that problem.

“What if my parents needed to come to my school?” Richardson said.

Richardson battled cancer throughout their high school experience.  Their parents needed quick access in case of a medical emergency. Richardson said they felt uneasy knowing their parents were so far away in critical times.

Richardson said their family had to choose between their education and cancer treatment.

Issues like this are why it is important to have not only representation in local government, but proper representation according to Richardson.

“Proper representation, to me, means my leaders live and engage with the community they represent,” Richardson said.

Better Together’s current plan, 33 districts will elect legislators for the metropolitan city.  Of those 33 districts, only 8 to 10 will be what is known as majority-minority, or where over half of residents identify as nonwhite.

This is a departure from the current city demographics, where African-Americans stand poised at 49.2 percent ready to make St. Louis city a majority-minority city.

Majority-minority neighborhoods and municipalities have a lot on the line according to Jones.

“They will go from being self-governing to subjugated to white majority,” said Jones.

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