In Ferguson and the Entire Nation, Institutional Racism Extends Far Beyond Law Enforcement

Donna Barry, Heidi Williamson
Protesters hold a rally on Aug. 18, 2014, in New York City in solidarity with the people in Ferguson, Mo., protesting the death of Michael Brown.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The tragic events unfolding in Ferguson, Mo., following the police shooting death of a young African-American man have ignited a national conversation around deeply rooted racial tensions in America. On Monday at Michael Brown’s funeral, where thousands of family, friends, civil rights leaders and residents gathered, came calls for justice and dignity for all families. But while Brown’s death is an anguishing reminder of racial profiling and police distrust—particularly among men of color—it is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg demonstrating how many factors shape institutional racism and structural discrimination against communities of color.

Missouri’s legacy of institutional racism extends far beyond law enforcement: Housing discrimination, economic disparities and reproductive oppression have long suppressed communities of color. Put together, these factors undermine reproductive autonomy for women of color, particularly the right to have children and to parent those children with the proper supports.

Prior to the 2014 legislative session, Missouri had a failing grade from a national reproductive-health organization (pdf) because of its 24-hour waiting period, parental-consent laws and limited access to abortion services (pdf), which place unnecessary burdens on women in the state. Missouri prohibits the use of telemedicine for medical abortions, despite the fact that 73 percent of women in the state live in a county without abortion services. And HIV education is mandated, but education on basic condom usage is not. To add insult to injury, Missouri has decided not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.


Then there is the economic reality. With a population that is 67 percent black and 29 percent white, Ferguson has an unemployment rate that is currently 13 percent, which is more than double the rate in 2000. In the same amount of time, the wages of those employed fell by one-third and the number of those living in poverty doubled. In Ferguson, 20 percent of residents live below the poverty level, with the poorest residents being females of reproductive age and single heads of households. The rate of children living below the poverty level in Ferguson is 25 percent, which is higher than the national average of 22 percent and the Missouri state average of 20.3 percent. Nearly half of all homes in Ferguson are struggling, and communities of color have been foreclosed on at twice the rate of white homeowners in the area.

A city with a two-thirds African-American population has a police force with only three African-American officers and only one African-American City Council member, and crime statistics in Ferguson are as troubling as reproductive-health outcomes for the state. This year alone, African Americans were arrested eight times more than whites in Ferguson, making its arrest ratio higher than that of St. Louis County, which has an arrest ratio of 5-to-1, compared with the national average of 3-to-1.


St. Louis County has more than 36,000 women of color of reproductive age (pdf) in need of contraceptive services and supplies, with more than half of those women requiring publicly funded services. Although the teen-pregnancy rate for the state is lower than the national average, more than half of all pregnancies are unintended, with the majority of all births among females between the ages of 15 and 19 (pdf). The infant mortality rate in St. Louis County is double the national average. And 20 percent of all African-American births were preterm, while 14 percent of babies had low birth weight (pdf).

All women deserve quality health care that provides them the ability to control if and when they will have children, but women must also have the economic security and physical safety to parent those children. The environments in which women live, as well as the social supports available to them, influence the lives of the children they bear and their ability to parent effectively. When state forces deny expanded access to health care, police our streets with impunity, and exacerbate job and housing insecurity, they are in essence denying the women of Ferguson the right to reproductive freedom. When the state itself is the violent actor, it is denying everyone his or her human rights.


At the national level we see similar discrimination and injustice. On June 30 the Supreme Court decided that women working for privately held corporations, including Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, do not have the right to insurance coverage that would provide contraceptives without cost sharing because those majority-white corporate owners have unscientific religious objections to contraceptives that they think cause abortions. The women most affected? Hourly workers, minimum wage workers and many women of color.

From our local police departments to the Supreme Court and a host of other public and private institutions in this country, we see systemically embedded discrimination. Recent polling about attitudes regarding the situation in Ferguson also shows that whites and blacks view the problems and media coverage very differently. It’s time for us to have many more public conversations about how deeply embedded racism is in our culture and society. And it is long past time to start addressing and preventing laws and legal decisions that actually harm people of color. 


The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

Donna Barry is director of, and Heidi Williamson a senior policy analyst at, the Center for American Progress’ Women’s Health and Rights Program.


Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Share This Story