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.”