By Michael Nam
Baltimore’s current dire situation can find its roots in a history of crushing poverty, a segregated populace, and long-running police brutality. The Black population of the city has suffered considerably through booms and busts of the U.S. economy, with little in the way of relief.
A city with about 16,000 abandoned structures, a fifth of its children living in poverty, and a high rate of homicides, Baltimore qualified as a powder keg, making a frustrated outbreak of violence and vandalism inevitable in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death.
According to 2013 data, Blacks make up 63 percent of the population of the city, with white people at nearly 32 percent. However, almost 24 percent of Blacks live below the poverty level, compared to the 13 percent of their white counterparts.
But such a snapshot comes from a long trend of tremendous economic pressure, beginning with the decline of manufacturing jobs and the steady, precipitously falling rate of Black male employment. Between 1970 and 2010, employment rates for Black men of working age fell by over 15 percent, according to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee paper. The types of jobs available have largely been low-wage service sector jobs, with a 60 percent growth in retail and food services between 1980 and 2007, and middle-wage jobs and high-wage jobs growing at less than 10 percent.
The low income figures, the lack of employment and employment opportunities, the homelessness figure (estimated at 5,000), and a high school graduation rate of under 60 percent make up only part of this tale of two cities, however, with the smaller white population benefiting heavily from gentrifying developments.
In fact, race and income predict the grim outcomes of Baltimore’s Black residents right from birth. As a 30-year study by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander illustrated, being poor and Black in Baltimore set an inevitable path very early on:
4 percent of children from low-income families had a college degree at age 28, compared to 45 percent of children from higher-income families.
45 percent of white men were working in dwindling construction trades and industrial crafts, versus 15 percent of Black men from similar backgrounds and virtually no women, at age 28.
At age 22, 89 percent of white high school dropouts were working, compared to 40 percent of black dropouts
“The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life,” said Alexander. “It’s very sobering to see how this all unfolds.”
In The Baltimore Book by Elizabeth Fee and Linda Shopes, the decades have also shown a substantial shrinking of Baltimore’s overall population, a detriment to its tax base. Beginning with the white flight of the 1950s and ’60s, predatory “blockbusting” allowed real estate developers to purchase homes from white residents by playing up racial fears of expanding Black neighborhoods and then flipping the homes to Black purchasers at high markups.
This has led to a heavily segregated population, seen in a Brown and Florida State University study describing the city as having a “black-whitedissimilarity score” of 64.3 (scores above 60 are considered “very high segregation”).
Modern pressures on segregating Baltimore’s populace come from the paradoxical influx of white, college-educated residents gentrifying areas such as the city’s Middle East section around Johns Hopkins and the affluent Inner Harbor. Much of this change in recent years comes with the predatory behavior of real estate developers yet again, this time promoting the displacement of the Black residents.
Police Heavily White and Out of Control
Stories of police brutality towards Blacks during the eras of slavery and Jim Crow would hardly surprise many. But the Baltimore Police Department’s mistreatment of the Black populace over recent decades is finally coming to light.
Not surprisingly, the makeup of the Baltimore Police Department does not reflect the populace that it polices. In a Washington Post analysis of 2010 census data, 46 percent of the department was white, compared to a community that was about 30 percent white and highly segregated from the Black population.
From the NAACP calling for federal investigation of the BPD in 1980 to the brutal death of Freddie Gray today, the police force has maintained a tumultuous relationship with its populace. The police did not ingratiate themselves on the public with its “zero tolerance policing” in 2005, a practice that even led prosecutors to ignore the mass arrests for minor infractions, according to the Baltimore Sun. In terms of how the community reacted, people were outraged.
But even with the heavy-handed policing directive removed, Black residents continued to suffer from a police force with a reputation for abuse and brutality. The Baltimore Sun did an expos last year showing that between 2011 and 2014, Baltimore Police paid out $5.7 million in lawsuits stemming from excessive force cases.
Much like in the cases of Ferguson, Chicago and North Charleston, the city of Baltimore, its police, and the state of Maryland have been watching inequality grow, infrastructure crumble, and designated protectors torturing its populace with little effort towards a course correction.