To the north, Milwaukee is burning, streets set on fire as black citizens protest the killing of a black man by police as well as decades of racial discrimination. To the south, Baton Rouge is flooding, with thousands fleeing their homes after a natural disaster that the Red Cross is calling the worst since Superstorm Sandy. From the middle, where I live, both crises seem familiar: apotheoses of repression and neglect.
I live in an inner-ring suburb on the border of St. Louis. When I drive to downtown St. Louis, I travel down an avenue lined with houses without doors or windows. Some houses are boarded up, some are vacant, all are rotting. Corners are marked by teddy bears and balloons, homemade shrines dedicated to black citizens slain by criminals or police. Streets are lined with hollowed-out enterprises: a shuttered VCR store, an abandoned gas station with prices permanently locked near a dollar. Sometimes you can pinpoint the decade when the owner of the property left, and sometimes the decay buries its history, enshrouding former homes and businesses in crumbling bricks or creeping vines. This is what decades of poverty, corruption, and abandonment looks like.
What happened to St. Louis? It’s not Detroit, a city that has become synonymous, in the media at least, with a certain kind of urban American decline. But something has happened here, slowly but surely and without much national attention. This is what the residue of decades of poverty, corruption, and abandonment found in many majority-black cities throughout the Midwest and South looks like. It’s a crisis so enduring that it is rarely called a crisis, instead shrugged off as “just life.”
But in cities like ours, “just life” is how people die.
Every now and then, regional hardship hits a breaking point, and the outsiders arrive: politicians, activists, the national media. When Tamir Rice was killed, they came to Cleveland. When drinking water poisoned enough black children that the crisis was deemed “serious,” they went to Flint. When Ferguson burned, they came to St. Louis—and returned every few months to profit off local pain, to gather material for commissions and articles, to take photos by the burned-down buildings.
They come for the chaos. They don’t stay for the banal brutality of the time in between, the slow erosion of opportunities that structure daily living. In the Midwest and South, racism is compounded by regionalism.
Dramatic events in these regions—a shooting, an environmental catastrophe—are cast, in the media, as moments of crisis. But the actual crisis is a collective refusal to examine systemic failures and understand the long-standing local problems that culminated in these tragedies. At the heart of this blindness is racism. It is hard to imagine an epidemic of poisoned white children, or white teenage boys killed regularly by black police, or white inner city residents living in poverty for decades while black suburbanites happily thrive, without media and political outrage surrounding it.
In the Midwest and South, racism is compounded by regionalism. When a politician wants votes, these regions are “the heartland” or “the real America” (unless, of course, they’re referring to non-white residents). Most of the time, however, it is “flyover country”—the immense swath of land that coastal media and political elites ignore. The region’s invisibility has increased, like its hardship, since the 2008 recession. As of 2014, one out of four journalists lived in three expensive coastal cities–a significant change from one out of eight in 2004, a number already disproportionate to the population. Meanwhile, Midwestern and Southern media is steadily being bought out and bankrupted, leaving its stories untold by the people best qualified to tell them.
In 2013, journalist David Dennis warned of the repercussions of Midwest and Southern writers—particularly black writers—who can’t afford to remain in journalism:“Stories of crime in New Orleans or Chicago’s Southside are under-reported on the national level, and one of the reasons is the fact that voices from these areas aren’t making it to the national conversation to influence the direction of national discourse. Media workplaces are becoming populated by those who can afford the jobs. Those who can’t are being shut out.”
Little has changed since 2013, and proof lies in the coverage of two recent tragedies: the killing of Sylville Smith in Milwaukee and the unrest that followed, and the flooding in Baton Rouge, which has so far killed 13 people and displaced thousands.
What may appear to be an abrupt tragedy is actually the predictable outcome of decades of oppression and bureaucratic ineptitude. In both cases, you find systemic problems—of racism, poverty, and administrative incompetence—coming to fruition. Locals from each region have explained to outsiders that what may appear to be an abrupt tragedy is actually the predictable outcome of decades of oppression and bureaucratic ineptitude. As in past tragedies, their analyses will likely be ignored by regional administrators, and their struggles are unlikely to receive follow-up reporting from journalists who have moved on to the next story.
But these two tragedies also highlight a different kind of low: Baton Rouge and Milwaukee are getting comparatively little coverage at all. An editorial at USA Today noting the lack of attention paid to Baton Rouge chalks it up not only to the dominance of the presidential election and the Olympics, but to “Americans becoming almost numb to the onslaught of human suffering.” The author notes that the paper’s own coverage of the Baton Rouge floods has prompted little interest from readers, falling below president Obama’s vacation plans in its list of most-read articles.
In Milwaukee, the reason for the lack of coverage may be different: many of the protesters do not want it. “When it’s personal like this we don’t need no cameras,” Maria Hamilton, a Milwaukee mother whose son, Dontre, was killed by police in 2014, told BuzzFeed News. White reporters covering the Milwaukee protests were scorned by black residents and occasionally physically attacked. But the protesters’ reluctance to indulge the media is understandable: Ferguson, after all, became a rapacious media circus dominated by outsiders and inaccurate coverage. Poor reporting in Ferguson was part of why black students at the University of Missouri were so averse to cameras filming their own actions.
It hurts to be treated like an object or a spectacle—especially in cities like Milwaukee, St. Louis or Baton Rouge. It hurts to be treated like an object or a spectacle—especially in cities like Milwaukee, St. Louis or Baton Rouge (also the location of the Alton Sterling police killing), which have suffered for decades as most of America shrugged. It makes one wonder why no one cares the rest of the time, why suffering seems acceptable so long as it stays silent.
“The shooting may have been the catalyst for the protest and property damage, but as any native black Milwaukeean can tell you, what’s happened here is bigger than any one incident,” writes journalist Syreeta McFadden in the Guardian. “Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country. It’s one of the first things you learn as a black child there.”
A Milwaukee native, McFadden goes on to describe the problems facing what she calls “rust belt communities:” a lack of reliable transportation and jobs, widespread racism, segregated neighborhoods, and broken trust between citizens and police. These are problems familiar to the residents of St Louis, Cleveland, Flint, Baton Rouge, Detroit, and other Southern and Midwestern cities who briefly gain the media spotlight only to lose it weeks later.
These systemic problems are the real crises, the crises of everyday life. Those who endure them search for solutions—knowing, above all, that they are in it alone.