Baltimore and Race-based Residential Segregation

May 1st, 2015 at 9:03 am

While the protests and riots in Baltimore in recent days were critically triggered by yet another death of a young black man interacting with the police, there are of course many other forces at work.

Mike Fletcher, a journalist at the Washington Post, has made important contributions to the poverty/economics beat in recent years. But Fletcher has also lived in Baltimore for decades, and his perspective on recent events is particularly germane.

It was only a matter of time before Baltimore exploded.

In the more than three decades I have called this city home, Baltimore has been a combustible mix of poverty, crime, and hopelessness, uncomfortably juxtaposed against rich history, friendly people, venerable institutions and pockets of old-money affluence.

And then there’s this historical analysis of government-sanctioned residential segregation in Baltimore by Richard Rothstein. It’s an analysis compelling as it is chilling. Many of us have a vague sense of this history, but Rothstein lays it out in clear detail. It’s an absolute, must read, but I’ve pulled out some key sections below:

Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on. These are all good, necessary, and important things to do. But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.

In 1968, following hundreds of similar riots nationwide, [the Kerner Commission] appointed by President Lyndon Johnson concluded that “[o]ur nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” and that “[s]egregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans…”

In the last 50 years, the two societies have become even more unequal. Although a relatively small black middle class has been permitted to integrate itself into mainstream America, those left behind are more segregated now than they were in 1968.

When the Kerner Commission blamed “white society” and “white institutions,” it employed euphemisms to avoid naming the culprits everyone knew at the time. It was not a vague white society that created ghettos but government—federal, state, and local—that employed explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations to ensure that black Americans would live impoverished, and separately from whites. Baltimore’s ghetto was not created by private discrimination, income differences, personal preferences, or demographic trends, but by purposeful action of government in violation of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments. These constitutional violations have never been remedied, and we are paying the price in the violence we saw this week.

In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court found ordinances like Baltimore’s 1910 segregation rule unconstitutional, not because they abridged African Americans’ rights to live where they could afford, but because they restricted the property rights of (white) homeowners to sell to whomever they wished. Baltimore’s mayor responded by instructing city building inspectors and health department investigators to cite for code violations anyone who rented or sold to blacks in predominantly white neighborhoods. Five years later, the next Baltimore mayor formalized this approach by forming an official Committee on Segregation and appointing the City Solicitor to lead it. The committee coordinated 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 tempted to sell or rent to blacks. Members of the city’s real estate board, for example, accompanied building and health inspectors to warn property owners not to violate the city’s color line.

In 1925, 18 Baltimore neighborhood associations came together to form the “Allied Civic and Protective Association” for the purpose of urging both new and existing property owners to sign restrictive covenants, which committed owners never to sell to an African American. Where neighbors jointly signed a covenant, any one of them could enforce it by asking a court to evict an African American family who purchased property in violation. Restrictive covenants were not merely private agreements between homeowners; they frequently had government sanction. In Baltimore, the city-sponsored Committee on Segregation organized neighborhood associations throughout the city that could circulate and enforce such covenants.

Supplementing the covenants, African Americans were prevented from moving to white neighborhoods by explicit policy of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which barred suburban subdivision developers from qualifying for federally subsidized construction loans unless the developers committed to exclude African Americans from the community. The FHA also barred African Americans themselves from obtaining bank mortgages for house purchases even in suburban subdivisions which were privately financed without federal construction loan guarantees. The FHA not only refused to insure mortgages for black families in white neighborhoods, it also refused to insure mortgages in black neighborhoods—a policy that came to be known as “redlining,” because neighborhoods were colored red on government maps to indicate that these neighborhoods should be considered poor credit risks as a consequence of African Americans living in (or even near) them.

Unable to get mortgages, and restricted to overcrowded neighborhoods where housing was in short supply, African Americans either rented apartments at rents considerably higher than those for similar dwellings in white neighborhoods, or bought homes on installment plans. These arrangements, known as contract sales, differed from mortgages because monthly payments were not amortized, so a single missed payment meant loss of a home, with no accumulated equity.

To this day, median black wealth is a tiny fraction—only 8%–of that of whites, in no small part due to the inability to build the main source of middle-class wealth: home ownership.

Back to RR, who traces the history up to the present:

Ten years ago, during the subprime lending boom, banks and other financial institutions targeted African Americans for the marketing of subprime loans. The loans had exploding interest rates and prohibitive prepayment penalties, leading to a wave of foreclosures that forced black homeowners back into ghetto apartments and devastated the middle class neighborhoods to which these families had moved. The City of Baltimore sued Wells Fargo Bank, presenting evidence that the bank had established a special unit staffed exclusively by African American bank employees who were instructed to visit black churches to market subprime loans. The bank had no similar practice of marketing such loans through white institutions. These policies were commonplace nationwide, but federal bank examiners responsible for supervising lending practices made no attempt to intervene. When a similar suit was filed in Cleveland, a federal judge observed that because mortgage lending is so heavily regulated by the federal and state governments, “there is no question that the subprime lending that occurred in Cleveland was conduct which ‘the law sanctions’.”

Baltimore, not at all uniquely, has experienced a century of public policy designed, consciously so, to segregate and impoverish its black population. A legacy of these policies is the rioting we have seen in Baltimore. Whether after the 1967 wave of riots that led to the Kerner Commission report, after the 1992 Los Angeles riot that followed the acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King, or after the recent wave of confrontations and vandalism following police killings of black men, community leaders typically say, properly, that violence isn’t the answer and that after peace is restored, we can deal with the underlying problems. We never do so.

Recent, high-quality anti-poverty research has generated important findings regarding the positive impacts on children from “moving to opportunity,” i.e., moving from a high-poverty to a low-poverty neighborhood. Doing so is associated with 30% higher earnings in adulthood.

For good reasons, this finding is generating a buzz among those of us interested in reducing inequality and increasing opportunity of those children facing the highest barriers. But reading the above, and watching the crisis in Baltimore, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of a policy solution that moves kids out of harm’s way and one that deals with the “underlying problems.”

Both are, of course, important, but like Rothstein correctly observes, but when it comes to the latter, “we never do so.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

8 comments in reply to "Baltimore and Race-based Residential Segregation"

  1. Wondering says:

    What can be done about this? Does the federal government have any authority to step in and force changes in policy? Has anyone ever tried to name names in who has perpetrated these discriminatory policies in the past?

    I think think these days there would be enough public pressure to change this just because of the public shaming by the media, if they’re willing to name names.

    • Tammy says:

      Under the LBJ administration it became apparently clear that the funding needed for the war on poverty under initiatives that was part of the vision for “The Great Society” and our continued involvement in the hot wars were counter productive. Why? We could not fund both.

      Interestingly from a religious studies perspective there is a wonderful book by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan that fleshes out what Paul understood to be the law – all law, which included Roman law as well as Jewish law. This might seem irrelevant in our modern society, yet, I don’t think it is.

      “The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon” is a scholarship, demonstrating two incompatible views ‘peace through force’ and ‘peace through nonviolent justice.’ Justice is key here and our western Christian heritage should be constructively criticized (or constructive doubt) in how our ideologies undergird our policies. The history of our justice system is imperative for understanding and answering your questions.

  2. Smith says:

    This analysis seems to ignore the decline of cities due to job loss, especially manufacturing, and concomitant rise of poverty. While it is true that discrimination played and plays a significant role in the creation and continuation of an urban cycle of poverty, the whole business of not having good paying factory jobs anymore seems central and obvious to any discussion. Who thinks this is important? Paul Krugman for one.
    The problem can also be seen in data from Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart which looks only at white America. The difference between Murray and Krugman being Krugman believes lack of jobs leads to cultural change, vs Murray the other way around.

    More data with sources below:
    “In 1940, 60 percent of New York workers had manufacturing jobs.” “According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, industry now provides just 16% of private-sector jobs.”
    Look at the bottom graphic here:
    Manufacturing job loss continued into the 21st century:
    “Those losses had grown to troubling levels, totaling almost 125,000 between 1997 and 2010.”

    • Wondering says:

      I agree with Krugman. However, I think a lot of economists are quite confused about the fate of manufacturing jobs. We don’t count the number of foreign manufacturing jobs required to produce US consumer goods and capital goods. We don’t know anymore how many people it takes to make a lightbulb.

      Many higher ups seem to be brainwashed into believing manufacturing jobs are a thing of the past. They’re wrong. I think the confusion underlying the brainwashing comes from the lack of statistics and from an anachronistic view of future automation.

      Certainly we have a grand reckoning on the way in terms of technological job loss, but it isn’t here yet. Only people who live in relative security and poshness have the priviledge of these dreamy, anacronistic visions. When the time comes, we’re going to have political and economic problems. If it is really here, then the leaders should be suggesting solutions, but they’re too busy watching the stock market, I think.

    • Smith says:

      Missing link below, source of quotes above on manufacturing dropping from 60% in 1940 to 16% now.

  3. Smith says:

    Geographically more relevant:

    “Baltimore has lost two-thirds of its manufacturing jobs over the past 20 years, according to federal estimates. Statewide cuts also have been deep.”

    “Long owned by Unilever, the plant dates to 1926. It once employed 1,500, the union said. Sun Products, owned by the New York private-equity firm Vestar Capital Partners, bought the plant in 2008.”

    “…workers interviewed Tuesday said they believe the company wanted to shed its only unionized plant…”

    Household products maker Sun Products Corp. said Tuesday that it will close its nearly 90-year-old Baltimore manufacturing plant in June, laying off almost 300 workers and adding another name to the region’s long list of former factories.

    “Production at the plant, which makes fabric softener and liquid detergents such as All, Wisk and Snuggle, will be moved to the company’s facility in Bowling Green, Ky. Sun Products cited location — saying Kentucky is closer to its customers — and the age of the Baltimore complex as reasons.”

    Before Taft-Hartley, national unions could organize a secondary boycott of Wisk, Snuggle, and All, and stop this closing cold in it’s tracks.

    “In continental Europe, solidarity action is generally lawful and the right to strike is seen as a part of broader political freedom.”

  4. Wondering says:

    I just needed to add one more thought on this subject, and this is the best place I can find to put it.

    I grew up in Minneapolis. In my late teens I came to know a park police officer that I believed was a fairly nice person. His brother was certainly very nice, and I guess he himself was perhaps not quite as nice.

    Anyhow, he was not a full police and he carried no weapons. But one thing he told me (I have no idea why he told me this) was that it was just a well-known common practice to leave people unbelted and to slam on the brakes. It is known to even the most junior of police within a very short time on the force. It is common practice, kind of a thing of pride for many officers. It is one of those cliquish behaviors. If you’re a cool cop, you do it too.

    Through this friend I also met one of his friends on the real police force. We was known by us as the cop that carries his gun on and off duty, goes to bars and gets sloppy drunk, drives around and shows his gun to get respect.

    I now live in a place where I know 2 police officers that I respect highly, but they are rural police that don’t deal with minorities very often. They are good people and I’m sure they do their jobs much better than those other 2 police I knew when I lived in the city.

    And to answer the main question, was it racial? Absolutely. Yes. They told me it was.

  5. purple says:

    These issues aren’t specific with Baltimore or Ferguson, two places completely opposed in terms of geography. Meanwhile one of the few professions interested in dealing with this inequality, public school teachers, are relentlessly belittled and attacked by the political class. Good with all that cognitive dissonance.