Thursday, 28 May 2015

Baltimore Unrest II: The City

       According to the New York Times, "The tensions associated with segregation and concentrated poverty place many cities at risk of unrest. But the acute nature of segregation in Baltimore — and the tools that were developed to enforce it over such a long period of time — have left an indelible mark and given that city a singular place in the country’s racial history."
The State of Maryland allowed slavery. Baltimore, and Maryland's southern and eastern parts, depended on slavery for the state's profitable tobacco plantations.  The trade in slaves was also a source of wealth. Maryland didn't join the Confederacy of the southern states, but it might have. Feeling against the Union just before the American Civil War was so strong in Baltimore that Union troops occupied the city in May 1861. The whole state was then put under direct federal administration to keep it from leaving the Union.
At that time, Maryland had a large black slave population. It also had a large free black population, because of a liberal law on freeing slaves. A referendum on ending slavery entirely was put before the voters of Maryland in 1864 and by a narrow margin, the people voted to end slavery.
The free black population in Baltimore didn't leave the city. Despite the overall poverty of Baltimore's free blacks, compared with conditions for those living in Philadelphia, Charleston, and New Orleans, Baltimore was a "city of refuge." There were also institutions that provided a cushion against hardening white attitudes toward free blacks that followed the end of the Civil War.
But freedom didn't mean equality. In Baltimore, the city did all it could to segregate housing, helped by federal policies. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA, an agency meant to encourage home ownership) openly supported racist covenants that largely excluded African-Americans — even the middle class and the wealthy — from the homeownership boom of this period. And it typically denied mortgages to black residents wherever they lived.
Slums in Baltimore
(photo Timothy W. Maier,
Baltimore Post Examiner)
In Baltimore (as well as in other cities), this meant that black home buyers resorted to the "contract system." Property sellers set up ruinously priced installment plans and financial "booby traps" for the express purpose of repossessing the home. If the buyer missed even one payment, the seller got the house back and could sell it again. To meet the outrageous costs of these schemes, borrowers sometimes subdivided apartments and skimped on repairs. Properties decayed. Black families ended up trapped in deteriorating neighborhoods
Racism is, in the end, about profit. A small child who sees a person with different colored skin for the first time is curious, not repelled. Both whites and blacks (as well as other minorities), especially those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, are manipulated by political and economic interests into fearing and distrusting each other. This is made easier when educational failures leave people largely unable to question "received truths." As long as there is fear and distrust between the different communities, the divisions can be used to avoid public cooperation in demanding such things as responsible, unbiased policing.
After the riots
(photo by
Bishop M. Crowmartie)
The young man who was killed in Baltimore was fairly typical for his time and place. Freddie Gray was exposed to lead paint as a child and suspected of participation in the drug trade. These factors, added to the relative confinement of black unrest to black communities during the riots, are all features of a city and a country that still segregate people along racial lines. Segregation permits the financial enrichment of landlords, real estate speculators, corner store merchants and other vendors selling second-rate goods. And while blacks in Baltimore have a voice in the government, it can't offset the structural problems of a segregated community.
At the same time, it's worth pointing out that the riots lasted only one night. After that, a curfew and state of emergency were imposed. Many  in the community were and are opposed to violence. They supported the city's actions to calm things down. (For a time line of events from 27 April to 1 May, see
        While unrest has continued, there is recognition that violence only gives an excuse for a violent response. It continues the cycle and solves nothing in the end. In fact, the authorities in Baltimore have taken action to investigate and fix responsibility on those who were involved in Freddy Gray's death. Perhaps Baltimore, where segregation has been so pervasive and persistent, will end up being a model for how to finally root it out.

Note: the words in bold type can be found in the Quizlet titled "U.S. Racial Unrest"), if you wish. 

1 comment:

  1. Some of this is my opinion. You may disagree. Comments are meant to allow debate. If you think differently, or if you want to add something, please do so!