Segregation and a Path Forward to Inclusion in St. Louis

Henry S. Webber, Executive Vice Chancellor & Chief Administrative Officer and Professor of Practice at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and the School of Architecture & Urban Design at Washington University in St. Louis

The original version of this article was published on Washington University in St. Louis’ website.

Editor’s note: Segregation and a Path Forward to Inclusion in St. Louis is adapted from an address given during Facing Segregation: Building Strategies in Every Neighborhood, the 2019 annual conference of the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, on April 12, 2019, at Central Baptist Church, St. Louis, Missouri. This Perspective is presented here through a partnership between the Center for Social Development and the council.

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A little over 50 years ago, America declared war on segregation. We’ve learned much during that time. We are now very clear about the negative effects of segregation on those who live in low-income neighborhoods of highly concentrated poverty. In the 1950s and 1960s, we believed that segregation was bad for kids. Now, it is an established fact.

The policy tools available to fight segregation are much better than they were 50 years ago. We now know how to implement policies like inclusionary zoning, how to design community land trusts, and how to ensure fair housing. We have not solved all of the problems of policy design. We need much better tools to promote equitable development in very disadvantaged communities, but we have made progress.

Unfortunately, we have also learned that human psychology makes segregation difficult to solve. As my colleague Jason Purnell notes, we are hard wired to form tribes and to be more comfortable with those like us. We all need to work against our prejudices.

The bad news is that, despite knowing more about segregation now, including that segregation is wrong for America, we have made much less progress in reducing segregation than we would hope and want. We increasingly live in areas where everyone is much like us.

There are many reasons for this lack of progress. Federal public policy has promoted segregation, our own preference to live near people like us is a challenge, and local control of land use, an American norm, makes reform difficult. Land use decisions in the United States are, in almost all cases, made by local communities, regardless of the greater good. Suburban communities across the nation can and do set minimum lot sizes that only allow the building of single-family homes. These are often the communities that also tend to have the best school districts. The result is very little affordable housing and continued segregation of educational opportunity.

But the real problem is public will. We and our allies have not done our job of moving public opinion, nor have we done the political work needed. I have been involved in public policy issues for over 30 years. What I have painfully learned is that politics is more important than policy because, without good politics, there is no room for good policy. National Section 8 policy is made by Congress and the executive branch of the U.S. government. Elections and advocacy determine these decisions. The decision on whether St. Louis City has inclusionary zoning is made by the city’s Board of Aldermen. They work for us.

In stressing how much politics matter, I do not suggest that deciding what to do is easy. People with strong social values and great competence will disagree. Choosing the best tactical approach to engagement is hard. But it is what we must do.

I have one request for all of us today: that we ask three questions about all public policy proposals:

  1. Does the proposed policy reduce segregation?

  2. If the policy does not reduce segregation, can it be revised to reduce segregation?

  3. What can I do to make the proposals I believe in become a reality?

I am realistic; sometimes there will be good reasons to support proposals that do not reduce segregation; reducing segregation cannot be our only goal, but the question should always be asked.

We need to face facts: The St. Louis region has not achieved what it should have achieved in the last 50 years.

We each have our own ways to define success. My criteria for regional success are growth in population, growth in per-capita income, and reductions in the Black–White income gap. On all of these criteria, we are behind most large American cities. We are not at the bottom, but we are below the mean.

But we have made some progress in the last decade. The Cortex Innovation District has become a national model, and the Central Corridor of the City of St. Louis has strengthened considerably. LaunchCode and programs like it are opening the door of the new economy to diverse populations, and we have focused on important and productive ways to advance racial equity. But we are still not where we need to be.

Let me end with a dream for St. Louis. We can move mountains if we, all of us, decide that is what we must do. What if St. Louis dedicated itself to becoming the national model for inclusive growth, growth that benefits all of us: White, Black, and Brown, rich and poor? What if the region put the same efforts into this that we put into building sports stadiums or the interstate highway system? Let us commit together to a nation without segregation and a city of equal opportunity.


Henry (Hank) Webber is Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Administrative Officer and a Professor of Practice at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and the School of Architecture and Urban Design at Washington University in St. Louis.

Mr. Webber oversees a wide variety of administrative and external affairs functions including on and off campus University real estate and facilities, human resources, University operations, information technology and security, with combined operating and capital budgets of over $500M annually and over 1,600 University and contracted staff.  He has joint responsibility with the Provost for information technology and the Chancellor for external affairs.  He also chairs the University’s administrative cabinet.

Since coming to Washington University in 2008, Mr. Webber has led the development of the University’s real estate and sustainability master plans, long-term housing strategy and leads, along with the Provost and Chief Financial Officer, the University budget process. He lead “Campus Next: Enhancing the East End of the Danforth Campus,” the largest capital project in the history of Washington University.  He has played a key role in the development of CORTEX, a 200-acre urban biotech redevelopment effort with 6,000 jobs and over 400 companies.

Outside of his administrative functions at the University, he is Chair of the Board of Directors of Invest STL, the St. Louis region’s community development effort,  the Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation and CORTEX and on the Boards of Directors of The Downtown Partnership, Provident, RISE, and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

Mr. Webber obtained has a Master's degree in Public Policy from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.


Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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