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IOWA CITY - A University of Iowa professor has emerged as a national authority on the demographic shifts in Ferguson, Mo., and the larger St. Louis area, that some say underlies the boiling tensions between mostly black residents and predominantly white authorities.
Those tensions spilled over this week in Ferguson with violent encounters between police and protesters, looting, vandalism, and dozens of arrests in the wake of a fatal police shooting on Saturday.
Colin Gordon, a University of Iowa history professor, said the St. Louis area has systematically segregated itself racially and economically for decades through exclusionary zoning practices. Those practices add context to the unrest this week.
'The city has gone through enormous lengths to privately or publicly segregate itself,” Gordon said in a phone interview.
Gordon began researching the demographic shifts in the St. Louis area about a decade ago, and it has proved to be a valuable resource in understanding the roots of the violence today.
Gordon's 2009 book, 'Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City,” and related websites with interactive maps help visualize the racial migration patterns and segregation in St. Louis.
His research has been cited in the New York Times and Time.com, among others.
In the early part of the 1900s, whites began to flee the city for newly established suburbs, where blacks couldn't live until the Supreme Court banned the practice in the late 1940s, according to a New York Times article.
By the 1970s, black residents began moving into the inner suburbs, which had affordable housing, while more affluent residents - primarily whites - moved further out to the countryside, Gordon said.
They sprawled into new suburbs and used exclusionary zoning practices, such as requiring larger single family lots that prohibited apartment buildings, and thus excluded lower income residents, Gordon said.
'The expectation is for poor people to live somewhere else,” he said.
Those inner suburban communities shifted from primarily white to primarily black, but the power structures in city government and police remained predominately white, Gordon said.
The social gaps kept tensions simmering for decades, and as is the case throughout history, an isolated episode like Ferguson can manifest, Gordon said.
Gordon's data pulled from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that in 1990, African-Americans made up less than 25 percent of Ferguson, which is about 12 miles northwest from downtown St. Louis. At present, more than two-thirds of Ferguson residents are black.
'One of the reason why areas of transition like Ferguson are so volatile is the underlying demographics,” Gordon said. 'It's shifted from all white to all black, but the governance remains the same.”
He said the divide in communities such as Ferguson set the stage for 'confrontation between white police and black youth.”
While demographics in Eastern Iowa are far different, there's still examples here of how populations are sorted by race and reinforced by processes, Gordon said.
'Even in Iowa City, mechanisms - whether the way Realtors or landlords operate, or the way property is zoned - tend to reinforce racial segregation,” he said.
On Thursday evening, the Coalition for Racial Justice in Iowa City participated in a National Moment of Silence in honor of victims of police brutality.
The dark chapter in Missouri has also sparked discussion about the militarization of police departments. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he was 'deeply concerned” that the use of military weapons and equipment in Ferguson sends a conflicting message.
An analysis by the New York Times of U.S. Department of Defense data shows that hundreds of thousands of military machine guns, armed vehicles, aircrafts, and others have been transferred to police departments.
Iowa has received seven mine-resistant ambush protected armored vehicles, or MRAPs, since 2007, including one in Johnson County this year.
Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine said the transfer of military equipment to police has been going on for decades, and departments accept because it is typically free. Hargadine said Iowa City's only military transfers are night vision goggles.
In Cedar Rapids, police have only received a Humvee, which is used by an explosives division, said Chief Wayne Jerman.
Hargadine and Jerman both said they don't believe their local forces have become more militarized, and that the equipment the departments acquire is based on the needs to protect officers and the community.
'Our equipment on hand and the equipment we obtain is to further our mission and protect the lives of the community,” Jerman said. He added that his approach to positive relations between residents and police is being proactive with outreach to groups and neighborhoods.