Baltimore’s mayor proclaimed

This is probably the article that brought Richard Rothstein to the attention of the producers at Morning Edition and then Fresh Air: This Is One Reason Why Places Like Ferguson and Baltimore Have Become Explosive.

(Rothstein has written a number of articles. I’m going to read every one I can find.)

In Baltimore in 1910, a black Yale law school graduate purchased a home in a previously all-white neighborhood. The Baltimore city government reacted by adopting a residential segregation ordinance, restricting African Americans to designated blocks. Explaining the policy, Baltimore’s mayor proclaimed, “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.”


quarantined in isolated slums

How could he articulate those three words without recoiling at what he was saying?

That’s a rhetorical question. This one is less opaque than people finding entertainment in watching cats being lowered into fires. I sort of get how he could, however queasy it makes me. But all the same…you’d think people would be able to check themselves. “Poor people are a nuisance, we don’t like them, especially ones who aren’t white, so we have to quarantine them in bad places. Wait. What are we saying. That’s no solution. We have to provide good affordable housing and public services, like schools and libraries and parks along with police and fire departments, not forgetting sewer systems and garbage disposal. All of it should be wide open to all races and other categories, as should all other kinds of housing.”

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.

It’s the segregation, stupid. It’s this business of quarantining people in isolated slums.

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.

And then there’s the way African-Americans were forced to buy property given that the government made sure they couldn’t get mortgages. I didn’t know any of this…

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. In the Atlantic last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates described how this system worked in Chicago. Rutgers University historian Beryl Satter described it this way:

Because black contract buyers knew how easily they could lose their homes, they struggled to make their inflated monthly payments. Husbands and wives both worked double shifts. They neglected basic maintenance. They subdivided their apartments, crammed in extra tenants and, when possible, charged their tenants hefty rents. …

White people observed that their new black neighbors overcrowded and neglected their properties. Overcrowded neighborhoods meant overcrowded schools; in Chicago, officials responded by “double-shifting” the students (half attending in the morning, half in the afternoon). Children were deprived of a full day of schooling and left to fend for themselves in the after-school hours. These conditions helped fuel the rise of gangs, which in turn terrorized shop owners and residents alike.

In the end, whites fled these neighborhoods, not only because of the influx of black families, but also because they were upset about overcrowding, decaying schools and crime. They also understood that the longer they stayed, the less their property would be worth. But black contract buyers did not have the option of leaving a declining neighborhood before their properties were paid for in full—if they did, they would lose everything they’d invested in that property to date. Whites could leave—blacks had to stay.

What an absolute dog’s breakfast.


  1. says

    White people observed that their new black neighbors overcrowded and neglected their properties

    Blame the poor for being poor, then help make sure they stay poor. Sweet move.

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