How Baltimore Became What It Is Today

From The Washington Post comes an in-depth look at the historic socioeconomic and political roots of the city’s current inequities and strife. It is a sadly familiar and common story, one that accounts for the depths of despair and angst being unleashed :

These shocks happened, at least 80 years of them, to the same communities in Baltimore, as they did in cities across the country. Neighborhoods weakened by mass incarceration were the same ones divided by highways. Families cornered into subprime loans descended from the same families who’d been denied homeownership — and the chance to build wealth — two generations earlier. People displaced today by new development come from the same communities that were scattered before in the name of “slum clearance” and the progress brought by Interstate highways.

And the really terrible irony — which brings us back to Baltimore today — is that each of these shocks further diminished the capacity of low-income urban black communities to recover from the one that came next. It’s an irony, a fundamental urban inequality, created over the years by active decisions and government policies that have undermined the same people and sapped them of their ability to rebuild, that have again and again dismantled the same communities, each time making them socially, economically, and politically weaker.

“We keep moving the baseline down,” says Mindy Fullilove, a social psychiatrist at Columbia University who has studied the “root shock”people experience when their communities are repeatedly destabilized, dispersed and abandoned by anyone with resources. “People who are losing their homes to gentrification also got injured by deindustrialization and mass incarceration and urban renewal.

“They’re not separate — they’re inextricably linked. And it’s the cumulative downward force of this on social organization that’s the stunning thing to be accounted for.”

It’s the thing that created the deeply and racially unequal Baltimore we have today — and that lies behind the protests rising there now.

In Fullilove’s research on urban renewal, 67 percent of people displaced by such demolition projects nationwide were black. Those people who moved lost their social networks as well as their homes. Over time, de-industrialization took their decent blue-collar jobs, too. And because we never invested in the kind of education low-income urban communities would need to find work in a post-industrial world, low-skilled workers today are left with worse prospects today than they had two generations ago.

And although the focus on many people’s mind is of the incident that sparked this unrest, the bigger picture shows that a lot more deeply rooted factors are at work.

We don’t acknowledge that we created slums and perpetuated poverty. We don’t acknowledge that people who are poor were denied the chance to build wealth. And we don’t acknowledge that the problems we attribute to poor neighborhoods reflect generations of decisions made by people who have never lived there.

The historic scale of these forces also helps to explain why even a city with a black mayor and a black police chief isn’t immune to racial unrest. Several minority elected officials in 2015 can’t be a corrective to decades of compounding policy. Nor can a few pilot projects and fleeting government grants.

Yes, the outright racism that motivated many of these historic policies has eroded with time. “But we have to understand,” Fullilove says, “the machine can work without the operator.”

The protesters in Baltimore, she says, are expressing their rage against that machine, which is a thing much larger than the death of one man, or even the singular issue of police-community relations. To call the unrest this week a “riot,” the people behind it “thugs” — as Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did this week — misses all of these interrelated pieces that Baltimore gives us a chance to reconsider.

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