St. Louis is known for the Gateway Arch and toasted ravioli. We are also known for being one of the most racially divided cities in the country. During the last century, reports consistently pointed out the disparities and called for change. As early as July 1915, The St. Louis Argus newspaper declared, “The campaign against segregation starts Monday.”
But fast forward to 1989, and a study conducted by Confluence St. Louis was calling for an end to racial polarization. More than ten years later, in 2000, Focus St. Louis convened 30 citizens for a task force to assess why the 1989 report recommendations fell short. But as recently as 2012, our British friends released a documentary showing the stark contrast of how people live on both sides of the “Delmar Divide.”
Can you blame my friend for being skeptical when I touted this year’s study, “For the Sake of All: A report on the health and well-being of African Americans in St. Louis“? Even the Focus St. Louis report of 2000 noted that “as reports continue to be published on different challenging issues facing the St. Louis region, they are often met with the shrug of shoulders and sighs of ‘here comes another report’.”
If the facts have changed at all, they have probably changed for the worse. The Delmar divide? The area directly north of Delmar Blvd. is 99% African-American, and the homes there are a quarter of the value of homes south of Delmar. Life expectancy in the predominantly black 63106 zip code, north of downtown St. Louis, is 67 years; in the 63017 mostly white suburban zip code, life expectancy averages 82 years. 25% of African-Americans in the city are unemployed; 1 in 10 drop out of school. 15 African American infants die per 1000 in the city; compared with 5 white infants. Chronic diseases are more prevalent in the African-American community.
So why shouldn’t we be skeptical of this study? What makes it different from those in the past?
Recently, the auditorium at the Missouri Historical Society was filled to capacity at a conference seeking public comment on the study. The seats were taken by whites and blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Those who attended were young, middle-aged and old. They came from the city and the county. Many represented community organizations, social service agencies and maintained rapt attention for the four hours of the meeting.
Panelists told of work they are doing in the areas of education, health, and housing, and they presented positive recommendations for moving forward. They described programs that make a difference. These are community leaders who work in our public schools, with our youth, who provide housing services and treat our children and adults at health centers. They aren’t “studying” the problems; they work to solve them.
And we can’t overlook those who conducted the study. Jason Purnell, PhD, MPH from the Brown School at Washington University, is a principal investigator, and his colleagues at St. Louis University haven’t written a report just to leave it sitting on a table. They have made it clear that there is a cost to all of us, that “the loss of life associated with low levels of education and poverty among African-Americans was estimated at $3.3 billion.” They are determined to make this known widely and are developing study guides that will be broadly distributed.
Purnell hasn’t just produced a report; he has made recommendations and calls to invest in early childhood development, school health programs, disease prevention, quality neighborhoods and to create economic opportunities. On June 5, 2014, the St. Louis American, said that the Brown School is in it “for the long haul,” and then declared, “We’re in too, also for the long haul. How about you?” Join me in answering with a resounding, Yes!