About four months has passed since the dramatic wave of civil unrest that flooded the streets of Baltimore and minds across the nation following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a spinal cord injury in police custody. Many people believe that the riots in Baltimore were caused solely by the anger and frustration over Gray’s death, however, a closer look at the city’s history reveals that unrest in Baltimore was built from many decades of racist policy that affected economic opportunity for poor people and minorities. The long history of brutality between police and the black community was only one component of the problem in Baltimore. An enormous underlying force is the lack of resources, financial opportunity and quality living conditions, predominantly in the deprived neighborhoods that saw some of the worst violence during the unrest. Last weekend, I visited Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, Sandtown-Winchester, which was littered with vacant buildings, unclean streets and packed homeless shelters — a tremendously different picture from North Baltimore, just a few miles over, where one might find plentiful trees, driveways and home-owners of beautiful houses. Two neighborhoods so close, yet exceptionally different including a drastic difference in household income, a large gap in unemployment rates and a most obvious difference in skin color. The unequal segregation contributing to the lack of opportunity in Baltimore began more than a century ago with a purposeful intent by federal and local lawmakers, followed by failed policy over the last few decades.
In 1910, a black man, and a graduate of Yale law school, purchased a home in a previously all-white neighborhood in Baltimore. The swift response from the Baltimore City government was a residential segregation ordinance that required black Americans to live on selected blocks in the city. Overnight it became officially illegal for blacks to live in white neighborhoods vice versa. At the time, the Baltimore city mayor broadcasted this new policy with this explanation: “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby white neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the white majority (Rothstein).” This was only the beginning of a long future of government-sponsored segregation designed to keeps black residents in “isolated slums.”
Soon the overcrowding and forcing of black people into these slums made for extremely poor living conditions, the spreading of disease and crime that was difficult to be contained. The 1910 ordinance was deemed unconstitutional in 1917 when the Supreme Court struck down the similar ordinance in Kentucky that constitutionally eviscerated the ordinances of other cities (cities in Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina, etc.) (Power, 1983). However, what seemed like a step in the right direction was weakly effective, as is any policy that is not enforced. Instead, the city perpetuated segregation in their own creative ways: The Baltimore mayor instructing city police inspectors to threaten property owners with code violations for anyone who sold to black people in predominantly white neighborhoods, while City officials and real estate industries worked together to create contracts the prohibited blacks from being able to purchase certain homes. Eventually, after a few years an official Committee on Segregation was formed to coordinate “the efforts of the building and health departments with those of the real estate industry and white community organizations to apply pressure to any whites who tempted to sell or rent to blacks (Rothstein).”
Then in 1934, what would become one of the most atrocious committees was created: the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA, until 1968, was celebrated by many for allowing accessible homeownership to whites by guaranteeing loans. However, they also openly rejected and “refused to back loans to black people or people who wanted to live near black people.” This act of redlining shattered the possibility of investment anywhere where black Baltimoreans lived (Madrigal, 2014). Today, most of the wealth of middle-class families stems directly from homeownership or lack of homeownership — wealth that passes from generation to generation; the policies from the early 1930’s have certainly negatively affected black families in present day. Nationwide, “black family incomes are not about 60 percent of white family incomes, but black household wealth is only about 5 percent of the white household wealth (Rothstein).”
In the early 1940’s and 1950’s the federal government backed a variety of failed urban renewal projects intended to revive Charm City’s economics by demolishing entire neighborhoods, most being low-income predominantly black. These efforts, instead of serving the people of Baltimore, squanders public resources and taxpayer dollars on projects that mostly benefited politicians and business interests. The result was thousands of poor families (58% black) being displaced by 1958. Despite the Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act) being passed in 1968 outlawing refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, a few years later in the 1970s, local governments in Baltimore, New York, Chicago, and other big cities removed a variety of public services from poor areas. Fire departments were spread out and entirely removed, raising the number of fires and leaving broken buildings and homes that left people with nothing to do but the devastating option of fleeing from their homes. This is just one of many ways the government persisted to put policies in place to keep blacks in poor neighborhoods and restrict opportunity in virtually every aspect of life.
This segregation has had a variety of different consequences: Currently Baltimore City has an 80% high school graduation rate while there is a 90% high school graduation rate in white surrounding counties, Anne Arundel and Baltimore County; 27% college graduation rate in Baltimore City and 36% in surrounding suburbs. The unemployment rate in the city is at 18%, more than twice the 7% of the surrounding suburbs. And in the city of Baltimore the poverty rate is 24%, triple the 8% of the surrounding counties (Rothstein). The list goes on and on of the drastic inequality.
During my visit to Baltimore last weekend, I came across several people facing homelessness who expressed to me that their situation was a direct result of policy set in place in the 1990’s where the federal government encouraged cities to replace federal housing units, homes to poor people, with mixed-income complexes. Many might have seen this as a great step toward integration; however, the mixed-income complexes left half of the people residing in the replaced units without affordable housing — displacing even more poor and black Baltimore residents. Stories from these same people included more than just their lack of affordable housing, but served as a testament that their separate and segregated homes were truly, as ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, unequal.
“I have a dream today! I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — on day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers (King, Jr, 1963).” Many can remember the powerful and hopeful words of Martin Luther King Jr. at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial back in 1963 as he spoke about uniting a nation and living in a world of equal opportunity, not just in Alabama but in places like Ferguson and Baltimore. The ironic and disappointing truth is that the school’s named after civil right leaders like Martin Luther King Middle School and Rosa Parks Elementary School are the most segregated and the segregation of black children has reverted to its highest level since 1968 (Kozol, 2005). Baltimore is just one example of the many cities around the country with public policy designed on the basis of pure racism and economic greed to segregate and impoverish black communities. Each policy leaving lasting consequences in present day Baltimore that spurred the many acts of unrest in the 1967 riots, and the many other protests following the killing of black men. Our past and current government-sponsored unequal policy have sabotaged and predestined the lives of poor, black children and families — that cannot be moved unless the government takes drastic measures to willfully and swiftly integrate our suburbs. Our policy-makers must correct the legacy our laws have put in place and make action to fulfill the dream King spoke about decades ago in Washington.
Isolated slums and ghetto conditions will continue and the unrest will never stop, unless the government takes true action to implement the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The Fair Housing Act was not simply an order to end segregation, but it was a call to adopt integration. After decades of a law that has not been truly enforced and seemingly forgotten, President Obama announced earlier this summer that new rules will be put in place to “repair the law’s unfulfilled promise and promote the kind of racially integrated neighborhoods that have long eluded deeply segregated cities like Chicago and Baltimore (Badger, 2015).” The rules will include requirements for cities and towns all over the country to examine their housing patterns for racial bias and publicly report the results as well as set goals, that will be tracked over several years, to reduce segregation. Our history shows us that policy is just a piece of writing on a paper unless it is justly implemented — I have hope that this new initiative by the president will hold our governments accountable and stay true what constitution allows us. Tragedies, like the death of Freddie Gray, while painful and heartbreaking, will be the beginning of a realization of change for our communities — and hopefully a call for sustained and robust action by our policy makers and leaders for a more equal country.
• Cathryn A. Paul is a world traveler, and scholar at the University of Maryland, College Park studying African American studies. On campus she works with the Association of Minority Future Educators and activist organization Community Roots.