St. Louis, Missouri is the city with the highest rate of police shootings in the United States. It’s the city with an 18 year difference in life expectancy between Black and white neighborhoods which stand just 10 miles apart. It’s the city where, after Mike Brown was shot in 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement was born. It is also, now, the city whose history offers essential lessons about the history of the United States as a whole, thanks to Walter Johnson’s indispensable new book The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States
(Basic Books, 2020).
The book tracks how anti-Blackness in America has long had everything to do with imperialism, working as much by removal as by predation. Imperial racism was at play when 19th-century settlers demanded Native land west of the Mississippi as compensation for abolition, when they tried to make the end of slavery would go hand in hand with the removal of free black people, or when they massacred black workers for strike-breaking instead of organizing across racial divides in the 20th century.
However, the book also shows that the city’s radicalism has never been far from the surface. From the 1877 strike where the proletariat literally took control of the city for a day, to the 1930s when Black women led successful multiracial organizing, people have fought the racial capitalist status quo.
The status quo has fought back, shapeshifting from genocide to lynching to strike-breaking to redlining, ultimately building white supremacy into the very fabric of the city’s material infrastructure. It is this “structural racism” which we need to understand and unbuild if we are to create truly anti-racist, decolonial futures, and this book is a must-read for everyone – historians, organizers, allies, citizens – interested in taking that first step.
is Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.
Aparna Gopalan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Social Anthropology at Harvard University studying the reproduction of inequality through development projects in rural western India.