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American liberals are feeling relieved at the election of a new, progressive president after four years of bigotry in the White House. The forces of justice have taken back the capital from Muslim bans and border walls.

It might give them pause, however, to read a new history of St. Louis, Mo., of all places. The book shows how often the most important battles for racial equality are won, and lost, at the local level. Celebrate the inauguration if you’re so inclined, it implies – then have a look at your own backyard.

There is no more American place than St. Louis. It sits in the middle of the country, like a crossroads: A “northern city with a southern exposure,” as the African-American activist Margaret Bush Wilson called it, but equally the Gateway to the West, as its famous arch proclaims.

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St. Louis was home to Scott Joplin and Chuck Berry when they pioneered the sounds that became jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Companies with crunchy, tactile names like Federal Fur and Wool and Prunty Seed and Grain have reflected the city’s role as a depot for the harvest of a mighty country, where pelts and wheat and metals are turned into clothing, suds, and weaponry.

Running through this catalogue is the most American thing about St. Louis of all: the way race lies inescapably at the heart of the city’s story. The collision of north, south, east, and west made St. Louis a crucible of the country’s white supremacy. Here was a main hub of the U.S. Army during the last of its so-called “Indian Wars,” and where the enslaved Black man Dred Scott filed his doomed lawsuit for freedom.

This vivid, brutal history makes St. Louis a good prism for studying racism in the United States writ large, and that is what the Harvard historian Walter Johnson sets out to do in The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, published last year. Johnson, who was raised in nearby Columbia, Mo., wants to show that his subject is both monstrous and typical. He lists a series of ignominious St. Louis firsts – the first residential segregation ordinance passed by popular referendum; among the first police departments to use dogs, often used to intimidate Black Americans – but Johnson is not content to merely tell the story of a single city.

Rather, he joins a wave of historians, journalists and filmmakers who have produced work in recent years showing, ironically, that the best way to illustrate the full scope of American racism is to look closely at the local. It’s there, they argue – on the bleeding edge of disputes over property values, school bus routes and the organization of factory floors – that we can best appreciate how thoroughly the white majority has tilted the scales against their fellow Black citizens.

The point has been made equally by recent studies of New Orleans, Los Angeles, Chicago and Wilmington, N.C.. Their histories suggest a grim counter-narrative: even as the federal state moves grandly and slowly towards a more perfect Union, with every heralded Supreme Court ruling and Congressional bill, local governments, school boards and neighbourhood associations have worked quietly but fiercely, using insidious bureaucratic means, to undermine the official march of racial progress.

Johnson’s history doubles as a polemic against what he calls “racial capitalism”: the use of stolen Indigenous land and Black labour to underwrite the whole American project. His premise is hard to dispute. But the book is strongest at its most fine-grained, in the small, sometimes absurd details of exploitation that illustrate his point.

At the factories of the Funsten Nut company in 1930s St. Louis, for example, the production lines were segregated by race. Black women shelled the nuts and white women sorted them into halves and pieces. The job of shelling was worse in a few ways: because the nuts had to be shelled before they were sorted, Black workers were required to punch the clock 15 minutes earlier and end their shift 15 minutes later than the white workers. The white women were also paid a weekly wage of about $3, while the Black shellers were paid by the pound, and rarely made more than $2 in a week.

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This kind of injustice may not be as dramatic or viscerally disturbing as more familiar stories of lynching or police brutality, but it shows how insidiously racism has woven itself into Black American life, routinely and materially.

In St. Louis, as in much of the country, this mundane, concrete, everyday racism was most clearly manifested in housing. The “father of American urban planning,” Harland Bartholomew, made his name in St. Louis, advocating policies that would set the pattern for the segregated modern American city. It began with “slum clearances” that tore down largely Black neighbourhoods to make way for the freeways that would lead to overwhelmingly white suburbs. In St. Louis, that meant death for communities such as Mill Creek Valley, where almost 20,000 African-Americans were displaced to reduce “blight.” One local developer admitted that the demolitions would leave “practically no new housing available anywhere in the metropolitan area for Negro families.”

Displaced from downtown, Black Americans were systemically barred from the new suburbs by a combination of legal restrictions and desperate guerilla tactics. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the enforcement of racially restrictive housing covenants in 1948 as the result of a legal challenge by a Black St. Louis family, but without the law on their side, white suburbanites were merely forced to get creative. In 1956, a Black doctor named Howard Venable started building a house in the new suburb of Creve Coeur (literally “heartbreak”). White residents promptly pooled their money to buy the property before he moved in – a common tactic in St. Louis, Johnson says. When the doctor refused to sell, a group of white citizens changed tactics, passing a law that forced the city to seize any property for which residents were willing to donate half the cost of turning it into a park. The former Venable home remains a park to this day.

By the 1960s, a combination of government policy and rearguard citizen action created a metropolitan area that was scythed into racial sectors, home to the quintessential white suburb, Webster Groves, and the poster-child Black housing project, Pruitt-Igoe. Their fates were predictably different: Webster Groves became famous as the subject of a 1966 CBS documentary about the cozy conformity of upper-middle-class life; while Pruitt-Igoe was dynamited on live TV in 1972 after years of under-investment had turned it into a warren of poverty and crime.

If St. Louis contained a high concentration of these racist trends, it was in no way unique. Sarah Broom’s powerful 2019 memoir of growing up in New Orleans, The Yellow House, shows how her city was literally engineered to sacrifice Black wealth and Black lives, funneling proud African-American communities toward swampy land where their homes rotted and foundered until they were swept away by Hurricane Katrina.

In his celebrated 2014 Atlantic magazine essay “The Case For Reparations,” the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates helped elevate the practice of “redlining” to common knowledge, recounting how the Federal Housing Administration designated Black neighbourhoods as bad bets and refused to insure their mortgages, pushing Black Chicagoans, for example, into the hands of shady lenders. The divided and unequal urban landscape this forged in Chicago was on display in last year’s brilliant five-part National Geographic documentary City So Real.

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The leftist scholar Mike Davis has spent his career chronicling the racial politics that shaped the Los Angeles suburbs, including a revolt against integrating local schools in the late 1970s that involved an academic boycott by more than half of the white students in the San Fernando Valley. He revisited parts of that urban history in last year’s Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Jon Wiener.

Something simple becomes clear in reading this work, depressing for citizens and difficult for scholars: the worst abuses of American racism are splintered into a million petty local conspiracies like these, remaining hidden in the archives of regional banks and county courts, or dismissed as isolated incidents. A review can only begin to give a glimpse of the writers painstakingly trying to reassemble a complete picture of their country’s most distinctive crime, shard by shard.

Some anecdotes can at least help tell the story in miniature. Johnson gives us one, in the parable of the Fairgrounds Park swimming pool. This was the pride of St. Louis – at one point the largest open-air swimming pool in the world. In 1949, after years of protests, the city finally opened it to Black residents, and on June 21, Black children lined up to swim in the famous pool for the first time. But when news of the integration spread on the radio, it drew a white mob. Hundreds came to throw rocks and bricks at the Black swimmers, pursuing them through the park and attacking those they could catch; in the end, 15 people were seriously injured, including at least two who were stabbed.

The mayor closed the pool for the summer the following day, but that wasn’t the end of the saga. When the facility was reopened and integrated under federal court order in 1951, white residents boycotted, unable to stomach the thought of sharing the water with Black people. After a few years, with attendance down, the City of St. Louis closed the pool for good and filled it with concrete.

So much of Johnson’s impressive book is contained in this unsettling story. It shows the visceral disgust that many respectable middle-class white Americans felt for their Black neighbours; the willingness of those same people to flout federal law when it involved racial justice; and the terrible self-defeating harm this attitude produced in U.S. cities.

Above all, it shows how instructive it can be to study the vast subject of American racism by zooming in, all the way down to a municipal swimming pool in the all-American city of St. Louis.

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