The Baltimore riots threw a spotlight on the poverty and isolation of the African-American community where the unrest began last month. The problems were underscored on Friday when the Justice Department, in response to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s request, started an investigation of the Police Department, which has an egregious history of brutality and misconduct.
Other cities are plagued by the same difficulties, but they have proved especially intractable in Baltimore. A new study from Harvard offers evidence that Baltimore is perhaps the worst large city in the country when measured by a child’s chances of escaping poverty.
The city’s racially segregated, deeply poor neighborhoods cast an especially long shadow over the lives of low-income boys. For example, those who grew up in recent decades in Baltimore earn 28 percent less at age 26 than otherwise similar kids who grew up in an average county in the United States.
As shocking as they are, these facts make perfect sense in the context of the century-long assault that Baltimore’s blacks have endured at the hands of local, state and federal policy makers, all of whom worked to quarantine black residents in ghettos, making it difficult even for people of means to move into integrated areas that offered better jobs, schools and lives for their children. This happened in cities all over the country, but the segregationist impulse in Maryland generally was particularly virulent and well-documented in Baltimore, which is now 63 percent black.
Baltimore – A Southern City
Americans might think of Maryland as a Northern state, but it was distinctly Southern in its attitudes toward race. In the first decade of the 20th century, for example, the Legislature approved amendments to the State Constitution to deny the vote to black citizens. Voters rejected these amendments, not out of sympathy for civil rights, but because of suspicion that the political machine would use disenfranchisement to gain a stranglehold over state politics.
The segregationist effort in Baltimore gained momentum in 1910, shortly after a Yale-educated black lawyer bought a house in the well-heeled Mount Royal section of the city. The uproar among whites led to an ordinance that partitioned the city into black blocks and white blocks: No black person could occupy a home on a block where more than half the people were white; no white person could move into a block where more than half the residents were black. In 1910, The New York Times described this as “the most pronounced ‘Jim Crow’ measure on record.”
When the courts overturned the ordinance, the city adopted a strategy, already successful in Chicago, under which building and health department inspectors lodged code violations against owners who ignored the apartheid rule. Civic leaders then imposed restrictive covenants that barred black residents.