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Michael Brown Shooting

Fixing Ferguson: What Locals Say They Need to Survive

Image: Residents discuss the economy of Ferguson

Leeanna Moore, a barber, has seen many changes in Ferguson, Mo. Scott Newell / for NBC News

Despair and disparity were building in Ferguson, Missouri, long before the fatal Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing riots. The fuel for that mounting anger: an island economy lacking jobs and hope, a place feeling walled off from America, black residents assert.

The once-thriving St. Louis suburb was transformed from a white majority to a mostly black community in just over a decade as African Americans moved there for better schools and better lives. Most white residents left.

Three people who live and work in Ferguson explain how their hometown became a place of rage.

James Clark, vice president of community outreach at Better Family Life, a nonprofit development agency

“What you have in Ferguson is typical in every major urban center in America — African American people, limited resources, all exacerbated by the country's economic downfall.

"When the country catches a (fiscal) cold, the urban core has pneumonia. People are unable to meet daily needs or find meaningful employment. That has created an environment of stress, pressure. Every major urban neighborhood is the same time bomb.

Community activist: 'No hope' in parts of Ferguson 1:40

"America cannot allow this subculture to grow and fester. We cannot arrest our way out of it. We cannot legislate our way out of it.

"The subculture I’m referencing is the segment of the (black) community that does not conform to mainstream culture. Employment is not mandatory. Having a strong work ethic is optional. No real connectedness to the social, political or economic engines that the rest of the country subscribes to.

"In this subculture, graduating from high school is optional. Aspiring to go to college makes you an outcast. Crime and gun violence are accepted and expected.

"Brute force will not work. This subculture has flipped it: arrest me, I'll do a little time in jail and when I come home I'll be more popular. Getting shot is a badge of honor. It's a twisted subculture — what is right to do seems wrong, what is wrong to do, seems right.

"Just as we go after the Taliban, and we supply foreign aid, we need to apply domestic aid — mentoring programs for the children, drug treatment and anger-management programs, therapists for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The solution is not passing out jobs. A large percentage of the people couldn't pass a drug test or don't have the right attitude to be productive. We need job-readiness training. Our urban cores should be considered resource deserts.

"We would do ourselves a disservice if the take-away were race relations. We've been dealing with race relations since the '60s. Don’t re-hash race relations. We haven't talked about this subculture."

Leeanna Moore, barber

“If there were more jobs around here, we would have less of what's going on here. A lot of these kids have to resort to whatever they have to in order to make money; even the older people. It's a matter of survival.

"People here don't have credit so they can't get the loans to go to schools to do the things other (white) people are afforded. A lot of these kids come in, sit in my chair, and I ask: 'Did you get the job?' They say, ‘No, I didn't get the job. They gave it to someone else and that person happened to be a white person.'

Small businesses struggle in Ferguson 0:43

"My mother and father tried to afford us a better life so we moved to an area with a better educational system. Once we moved in, they (white people) started running out of here.

"If they (employers ) would bother to speak to these kids, they would know these kids are smart. I don't know why they're not afforded the same opportunities as the white community. I think society is scared — they think these kids are up to no good, that they might steal from them, so they are afraid to hire them.

"Those old ways (of Southern racism) are still here. Don't get me wrong — there are a lot of beautiful, wonderful white people around here that love you just the same, and are fighting this with us. But there are more of the other kind (discriminatory whites).

"This community was already stressed but we were dealing with what we had to deal with. At the same time, though, they were provoked. I don't think they should be tearing up our businesses. But I feel their rage. I have a 9-year-old son — what's going to be left for him?”

Antoine Harris, mobile phone sales associate

"Ferguson has gotten worse over the last couple of years in terms of job opportunities for anyone of color. If they try to get job, most of the (black) people get frowned upon, get told, 'Oh we're not hiring right now.' That's the (white) owners' way of saying, 'Hey, we're not going to hire you because of your color.'

"This has happened to people I know. They have associate or bachelor's degrees. They're told they are under-qualified or overqualified. They're told, 'We'll call you if anything comes up.' Then they hire the very next person — who happens to be Caucasian.

Low pay in Ferguson causes 'financial crisis' 0:37

"So (black) people are forced to work in the typical places — fast-food places or barber shops — not somewhere where you can really advance.

"I'm not going to lie to you, I think it's because (of) the few people we do have in St. Louis that actually do crazy things, like looting and robberies. All those events set people of color into this bubble where people stereotype us: ‘Hey, these guys are doing it, so I take it that you're doing it.' It's not fair. People in this area are nice people. A lot of people doing the looting are from other cities, other parts of St. Louis, coming out to use the opportunity to steal and fulfill their greedy needs."