What Do We Mean When We Say, “Structural Racism”? A Walk down West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson, Missouri

  • Walter Johnson Temple University Press


Walter Benjamin describes the concept of “presence of mind” as a way of thinking about and being in time that is at once, historical, prophetic, and actively engaged in the fullness of the moment. Its achievement is a bodily art as much as a mental one; it is the sort of understanding that comes from walking down the street.

The street I want to walk along today is West Florissant Avenue, in Ferguson, Missouri. There on August 4, 2014, Emerson Electric announced third-quarter sales of $6.3 billion, down about 1 percent from the second quarter, but undergirded by a record backlog of orders. A quarter mile to the northeast, five days later, Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. 

While the distance between the spot on Canfield Drive where Michael Brown died and the corporate headquarters of Emerson Electric is so small that the shots fired by Officer Wilson must have been audible in the company lunchroom, I do not want to draw too direct a line between them. I do not want to suggest that Emerson Electric is responsible for the murder of Michael Brown, at least not according to any conventional understanding of responsibility in our society. I do, however, want to use the proximity of Emerson’s corporate headquarters and the shooting of Michael Brown to suggest something about the framing determinants of historical events: ways the relationship between the past and the future is hedged in, limited, perhaps even determined by past histories and the habits of mind they support. 

After explaining what I mean on a fairly abstract level, with reference to the long history of the United States, I narrow the aperture a bit to think about the history of racism and real estate, of white supremacy and wealth, of structural racism with particular attention to the history of twentieth-century Saint Louis. I then, finally, return to Ferguson, the recent past, and the notion of “presence of mind.”