By Kaitlyn D’Onofrio (Diversity, Inc.)
A seventh St. Louis church, the Shrine of St. Joseph Catholic Church, was targeted early this morning in yet another case of arson that has devastated the city in an 11-day period.
Officials now believe that a string of arsons at six churches in St. Louis, Missouri, are connected. The churches, located in about a three-mile radius of each other, all “have a predominantly African-American following [and are] within predominantly African-American neighborhoods,” said Garon Mosby, a spokesman for the St. Louis Fire Department, to NBC News.
The arsons began on Oct. 8, starting with Bethel Non-Denominational Church. Fires at New Northside Baptist Church, St. Augustine Catholic Church, the New Testament Church of Christ, and the New Life Missionary Baptist Church followed. On Sunday, Oct. 18, the sixth fire occurred at Ebenezer Lutheran Church.
No injuries have been reported in connection with any of the incidents.
The Hate Crime Debate
Authorities did not initially say race had anything to do with the fires, even though they mostly occurred at churches with primarily Black congregations and in primarily Black neighborhoods. However, authorities were not the only ones hesitant to link race to the fires. Rev. Rodrick K. Burton, pastor of the New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, was also initially skeptical to say race was a contributing factor in the fires.
“I really believe that as African-Americans, you should not jump to that conclusion without evidence because then it damages when there is a real situation,” he explained. “People won’t take it seriously.”
In this case, though, people should take it seriously. Racial tensions are still alive and well in St. Louis, tensions that were exemplified further following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown last August and the subsequent riots in the neighboring town of Ferguson.
Hate crime statistics also reflect the racial tensions in the state as a whole. According to a2010 report, Missouri saw an increase in hate crimes from 2008 and 2009 to 2010. And the majority of racially motivated hate crimes in the state (64.7 percent) were anti-Black.
Meanwhile, St. Louis’s police department does not reflect the community it serves in terms of diversity. The city has a population of around 320,000 people; 49 percent of its citizens are Black, while 42 percent are white. However, the police department is 63 percent white and just 35 percent Black. The mayor and governor of St. Louis are both white as well.
A History of Racial Tensions
According to Clarissa Hayward, a political science professor at Washington University (located in St. Louis), “The St. Louis metropolitan area has been an extreme example of racial segregation for 100 years.”
Indeed, racism is deep-rooted in St. Louis’s history. While many Blacks moved to St. Louis in the 20th century as they sought the factory jobs available in the Detroit and Chicago areas, the city enforced segregated housing laws in 1916. Although the NAACP fought this and had the laws officially revoked in 1917, predominantly white neighborhoods still actively sought to keep their areas segregated. The city also enforced racial covenants on property deeds to prevent African-Americans from purchasing certain properties, until the Supreme Court abolished this practice in 1948.
Even after this ruling, though, segregated housing remained. But around the 1970s, as the efforts by white people to keep Blacks out of their neighborhoods began to collapse, whites began leaving the city. So while the overall population of the city has declined significantly over the last few decades, the population of Blacks has continued to increase. However, despite the change in demographics, the power structure remains favorable to whites as whites are continuously elected into political offices.