Why does St. Louis care more about Syrian refugees than its black population?

Racial strife is still alive in St. Louis, Missouri.
Racial strife is still alive in St. Louis, Missouri.
Image: Reuters/Lawrence Bryant
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On a warm September evening, hundreds of St. Louis citizens gathered in a parking lot off the commercial street of Delmar Boulevard to demand that 60,000 Syrian refugees be settled in St. Louis. The crowd was a mix of white Americans, Arabs and Pakistanis, united in their determination to make St. Louis the destination for Syrians whose homes have been destroyed in their country’s four-year conflict. “Millions hungry and displaced—make St. Louis your new place!” they cried as they marched down the boulevard.

It was a touching moment in a region wracked by the racial strife of Ferguson and a year of violent crime. Since the death of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach prompted renewed sympathy toward the Syrian plight, St. Louisans have been particularly active in their determination to help. The march for Syrian resettlement was the first of its kind in the US, and an op-ed calling for the refugees to come to St. Louis brought record traffic for local website NextSTL. Mayor Francis Slay has expressed his commitment to resettling the refugees, and the International Institute, a refugee resettlement center, has vowed to help Syrians in the way it has helped St. Louis’s large Bosnian and Vietnamese refugee communities in the past.

But drive further down Delmar Boulevard, and a different crisis becomes visible. This is the site of St. Louis’s “Delmar Divide“—separating rich from poor, and white from black. The area on the poor side of the divide is full of abandoned homes with no windows or roofs and people with no money or jobs. This is where St. Louis’s entrenched black underclass lives, in desperate conditions that have demanded attention—but received little—for decades. Drive further into the city and you will find the New Life Evangelistic Center, a homeless shelter deemed a “nuisance” by city officials, which may face closure. As St. Louis citizens vow to help Syrian refugees, many of their own neighbors remain without shelter and struggle to survive.

Yet these conditions are not considered a crisis. In St. Louis, they’re life.

The question is not whether St. Louis should help Syrian refugees or help its current residents. The question is how it can best help both, and why such a discrepancy exists between the compassion and generosity shown toward Syrian refugees and the continued neglect of St. Louis’s impoverished black communities, many of which have struggled to survive in this region for decades.

Over the past year, St. Louis has become synonymous with political protest. The death of Michael Brown launched a nationwide call to end police brutality. But while the focus has been on policing, black protesters in St. Louis have also highlighted broader inequities—in education, housing, job opportunities, and the striking disparity in the quality of life between the region’s poor blacks and affluent whites. In addition to the Ferguson demonstrations, protests have been held against exploitative low-wage jobs and the erosion of quality in St. Louis public schools. Unlike the Syrian protest, the protests against economic inequality were organized and attended primarily by black St. Louisans, and often failed to gain the widespread support the Syrian cause has inspired.

In many ways, it makes sense to resettle Syrian refugees in St. Louis. The city has a long history of refugee settlement, currently housing the largest population of Bosnians outside Sarajevo, most of whom were resettled here in the 1990s. The Bosnian resettlement helped boost the city population, long in decline after decades of white flight, and revitalize abandoned neighborhoods. Housing is cheap in St. Louis—it is easy to find a comfortable home in a decent neighborhood for between $50,000 to $100,000 dollars—making it easier for refugees to start over and build a new life.

But what of the population that has been similarly struggling to build a life in St. Louis for decades? Why is mass poverty among black St. Louisans accepted while Syrian refugees are offered aid and refuge? This discrepancy is particularly notable given the historic parallels between the two situations.

Black history is often taught in the US as a series of victories over oppression—the end of slavery, the passage of civil rights legislation, the election of the first black president. The complicated history in between these moments of triumph is downplayed—but it is a history that mirrors the refugee crisis in many ways. In her book The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer-prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson documented the migration of black Americans fleeing the Jim Crow south. She notes that their migration resembled the pattern of those fleeing dire conditions in foreign lands, despite the fact that black Americans were moving within their own country.

“The Great Migration had more in common with the vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world,” she writes, “where oppressed people, whether fleeing twenty-first-century Darfur or nineteenth-century Ireland, go great distances, journey across rivers, desserts, and oceans or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land.”

The Great Migration from the Jim Crow south is not a distant history. The protagonists of Wilkerson’s book lived in our lifetime, and the legacy of racial violence, segregation, and exclusion they experienced continues into the present. The black internal migrants of America, settling in places like St. Louis, faced many of the same struggles as immigrants from foreign countries—while also coping with job discrimination, redlining, and public hostility based on the color of their skin. Their descendants face these same problems today.

The recent outpouring of support for Syrian refugees is a beautiful thing. It stands in stark contrast to the complacency toward Syrian suffering that dominated the four-year conflict until the conscience of the world was awakened by the arrival of refugees on European shores. St. Louis is seizing the opportunity to do something right. But it also must do right by its existing population—impoverished black St. Louisans who have struggled for years for the same opportunities and support. St. Louis has shown its generous spirit—the question is only to whom and how far it will extend.