The cumulative impact of past disadvantage

More on the way deliberate, planned racial segregation has crushed people’s aspirations as a matter of policy, this time from Jamelle Bouie.

In the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived before he died in police custody on April 12, one-half the residents are unemployed and one-third of the homes are vacant. Sixty percent of residents have less than a high school diploma, and the violent crime rate is among the highest in Baltimore. You can paint a similar picture for the neighborhoods and housing projects on the east side of the city as well. If you are poor and black in Charm City, your life—or at least your opportunity to have a better life—looks bleak.

But then, this is by design. In the early 20thcentury—as in many American cities—Baltimore civic leaders endorsed broad plans to “protect white neighborhoods” from black newcomers.

The city was flush with waves of immigration—from abroad as well as the South—and more affluent blacks were leaving the older, poorer neighborhoods to move to predominantly white areas removed from the poverty and joblessness of the crowded slums. In short order, politicians and progressive reformers—motivated by benevolence, politics, and an en vogue scientific racism—endorsed segregation plans and racial covenants meant to cordon blacks—as well as Italian and Eastern European immigrants—on to small parts of land in the inner city.

Well the benevolence seems to have been all for the people who needed it least.

In 1950—following complaints from white residents over plans to expand public housing—the mayor and the City Council agreed to limit future building to existing “slum sites” where the majority of blacks lived. As they had done for the past four decades, white leaders prepared to limit black migration in the city as much as possible. But there was still a housing problem; blacks were still moving to Baltimore, and there weren’t enough units for the new residents. Both dynamics, working together, led to a decade-long project of “urban renewal,” as the city used federal funds for “slum removal” to make way for new, high rise public projects. Renewal displaced 25,000 Baltimoreans—almost all of them black—and the new high-rises were built with segregation in mind. By the time construction was finished, the new projects had bolstered and entrenched the segregation of the past. The black areas of 1964—and of the 1968 riots—are almost identical to the black areas of 50 years prior.

That pattern I’m more familiar with, from having read about how Daly carefully confined the black population of Chicago to a string a huge high-rise projects south of the Loop.

Baltimore is stuck, captured by the injustices of the past as well as the countless individual choices of the present. The city’s ills—its poverty, its fatherlessness, its police violence—are rooted in these same patterns of segregation and discrimination. This isn’t an excuse—Baltimore has had a generation of politicians, white and black, who can renovate tourist areas and implement new police techniques, but who can’t provide relief and opportunity to its most impoverished residents—but it is important context. Even at their absolute best, the city’s leaders have to contend with the cumulative impact of past disadvantage. White flight means a smaller tax base and fewer resources for improvement; industrial collapse means fewer jobs; crack and violence means a generation of “missing” black men, in jail or in the ground; a culture of police violence means constant tension with the policed.

And all that missing equity in houses they weren’t allowed to buy means lack of wealth to buy houses or pay for university educations now. Terrible decisions made a century ago are still producing terrible consequences now.


  1. guest says

    I don’t know if anyone’s talked about this yet in these posts, but I learned a few things when I was working on public housing in New Orleans. The original designs for public housing were meant to allow families, many just having moved to cities from rural areas, to continue to live somewhat self-reliant lives–for example, the two-story single-family units each had a small yard for outdoor food processing and growing a little food, and common space for such communal activities as laundry.

    These were, of course, for white families–the next generation of public housing was the high-rises you mentioned, where the idea was to squash as many people as possible in enormous towers into as little worthless land as we had to spare. I remember one striking aerial view (can’t find it easily on Google) of a couple of public housing towers stuck in a triangle between superhighways–win/win, isolate a large number of nonwhite undesirables on land that would otherwise be useless.

    My personal concern when working on public housing planning was access–it often didn’t occur even to such organisations as Habitat for Humanity, when they obtained land to build housing for low income people, whether these people would have access to transit to get to jobs, school, shopping, hospitals and anywhere else they needed to go on a regular basis (this was nearly 20 years ago, I hope things have got better both with local governments and with Habitat in this regard).

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