Baltimore Reckons with Its Racist Past—and Present

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Demonstrators protest outside of the courthouse in Baltimore after a mistrial was declared in the manslaughter trial of Officer William Porter, one of six Baltimore city police officers charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, on December 16, 2015.

Just over a century ago, in 1911, the Baltimore city council adopted the first residential segregation law in the country, forbidding black people from living in predominantly white neighborhoods. Though the Supreme Court ruled such policies unconstitutional seven years later, the consequences of the law, as well as the consequences of subsequent racist policies and practices like redlining, the displacement of black families, and mass incarceration remain. Today, Baltimore is one of the most segregated cities in the nation, where black residents make up a majority of the population but do worse than the average black American—and far worse than the average white Baltimore resident—on almost every measure of general well-being.

But over the past decade, Baltimore and other city governments have taken active steps to reverse the centuries of inequality that remain embedded in policy and practice. After all, if inequality was written into law, can’t it be written out?

Last week, Baltimore’s Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh signaled that she would sign two bills that would incorporate racial equity practices into city government. One bill requires agencies to assess the equity of proposed and current policies and address disparities, while the other allows voters to decide in November whether an equity fund will be established in the city charter. Such a fund would provide money to projects fighting racism. The legislation received unanimous support from the city council, according to The Baltimore Sun.

City Councilman Brandon Scott sponsored both bills. “If we’re truly going to deal with inequity, we can’t do it outside of city government until we deal with it inside city government,” he said when the bills were introduced in April. (The equity fund was originally meant to include a dedicated $15 million—representing 3 percent of the police department’s budget—but that stipulation was removed to ensure the bill would pass. According to the Sun, the mayor initially “expressed doubt” about the necessity of the fund, as her administration, she said, is already focused on equity.)

The Baltimore legislation is part of a recent trend among city governments to incorporate racial equity plans into their operations. The most prominent of the cities that have adopted such a plan is Seattle, whose Race and Social Justice Initiative was the first of its kind when it was introduced in 2005. RSJI set out to dismantle institutional racism; now, all city employees are trained on equity and inclusion matters, and policies are assessed with a racial equity toolkit before implementation.

Similar initiatives are at work across the country, in cities such as Fairfax, Virginia, and Portland, Oregon. Baltimore actually takes the equity work one step further by cementing the racial equity plan into law. Other cities, including Seattle, have adopted resolutions that directed departments to assess racial equity, but don’t actually require them to do so.

When implemented, Baltimore’s equity assessment program will require city agencies to assess their policies, both existing and proposed, for disparate outcomes, as well as to mitigate those disparate outcomes. A racial equity assessment is somewhat analogous to an environmental impact assessment, with agencies examining policies and practices and asking questions such as: Are we considering all neighborhoods, especially those that are most vulnerable? Could there be unintended consequences? How would the policy affect communities of color and low-income communities?

At the council hearing on the equity assessment program in June, city agencies expressed support for the legislation, but some agency representatives voiced hesitation about some of the details—namely, training and costs.

But according to Benjamin Orr, executive director of the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, this work isn’t actually all that difficult; it just “requires some intentionality and planning,” he says. Governments just need to understand the historical context and the need for equity-based policy, and they also must “take the time to break down the data beyond just the surface level, to disaggregate the data, to understand how it might impact different communities,” he says.

Sometimes, sunny numbers on the entire city might mask entrenched problems. Citywide, the unemployment rate might be low, but disaggregating the data may tell a fuller story about unemployment by race. In Baltimore, the unemployment rate over the past year has been similar to that of the country as a whole, hovering around or just above 4 percent. But in 2017, the unemployment rate for workers of color was three times that of whites, according to a report from Prosperity Now. MCEP recently put out a report about how a more equitable fiscal policy—targeted funds—could repair economic disparities that exist across the state of Maryland, which contribute to disparities in education, health, and general well-being.

Tracey Ross, associate director of the All-In Cities initiative at PolicyLink, who works with cities across the country to adopt more inclusive policies and practices, points out that policymakers aren’t typically putting forth nefarious policies meant to cause harm to people of color and poor people. But because inequalities have been baked into cities over the course of many years, assessments can assist city officials in overcoming the implicit biases coded into policies—what Ross calls “business as usual.”

Ross further illustrates this point with an example of where a racial equity tool could have been useful. When Minneapolis and St. Paul were designing the Green Line transit that would connect the downtowns of the two cities, transit officials picked the stops that seemed most obvious to them—where the wealthiest communities lived. But their original line mostly bypassed communities of color. By proposing this seemingly neutral policy, the planners, perhaps unintentionally, were effectively reinforcing “existing disparities, existing neighborhood patterns, where racial inequities were already built in,” says Ross.

Activists in the two cities successfully organized to alter the line, and the incident was actually the basis of new federal regulations that require economic accessibility and other criteria to be measured alongside cost-effectiveness for federal transit projects.

Many agencies in Baltimore are already taking steps to incorporate racial equity in their activities. In 2015, the city’s Department of Planning created a working group that evaluates policies as well as internal practices in an equity context—a small-scale equity assessment program heralding the new government-wide one. During the city council hearing on the bill, Baltimore’s budget director discussed how his office sent a staff member to Seattle to learn more about how racial equity practices could be incorporated into budget decisions. A representative from the health department described efforts to direct maternal health resources chiefly toward low-income women of color, who are much more likely to face complications in pregnancy and childbirth than wealthier, white women.

Baltimore is also home to community organizations that have been working in this realm for some time. “There are people who have been doing this [work] in this city for 20, 30 years who stand ready to assist [councilmembers and agencies] in whatever way is needed,” Adar Ayira, senior director at the Associated Black Charities, a statewide public foundation that supports the assessment legislation, said at the hearing. The Associated Black Charities developed an equity assessment framework in 2015—"Ten Essential Questions for Policy Development, Review, and Evaluation.”

Besides passing the city’s equity assessment program, the council also voted to put the equity fund proposal before Baltimore voters in November’s election. The fund will make money available to projects that aim to increase equity in housing and education, “redress past inequities in city budget capital spending,” and generally eliminate racism. If voters decide to create the fund, specific monetary amounts will be determined later through further legislation. “If you’re setting equity as a priority, [the equity fund] is a way of putting your money where your mouth is and acknowledging the important on-the-ground work that community-based organizations have long been doing to address structural racism,” says PolicyLink’s Ross.

It’s unclear from the bill exactly what type of organizations would be funded—government or nonprofit—but Seattle’s equity fund might offer some examples. Seattle’s fund provides grants to community organizations working to combat structural racism; a minimum of $60,000 is provided each year (additional money may come from outside grants or donations). In 2015, the fund made grants to six community organizations, including a summer camp for Native American youth and a collective of young immigrants that held forums for undocumented residents to learn about their rights.

The disparities between black and white and rich and poor in Baltimore seem to be constantly on display. Just last winter, images of Baltimore students wearing heavy jackets in the classroom because there was no heat in their (majority black) public schools were plastered across the media, while their schools tried to raise money through crowdfunding. But, according to Ross, Baltimore is more than its disparities—and it’s necessary that the city acknowledges the assets that already exist.

“I think that it’s going to be an important time for Baltimore not only to capture the challenges that are going on in the city, but also to invest in the community assets and the wonderful things about Baltimore: the social cohesion that certain neighborhoods have, the level of comradery and social networks that we saw during the protests following [the 2015 death of Freddie Gray],” she says. According to Ross, one way the equity fund could function would be to support groups that embody and promote such positive assets as neighborhood cohesion.

It’s not just city government that has the potential to operate within what’s termed an “equity lens.” This year, the Maryland state legislature considered a bill that would have implemented an equity assessment not dissimilar from Scott’s bill on a statewide level. While the bill made it through the state Senate, it died in the House. Orr at MCEP says that some legislators plan to take it up again in the future.

The legislation to change city government will not be a panacea, and is only one part of a larger movement toward more equitable cities. The All-In Cities initiative at PolicyLink recently selected Baltimore as an “All-In City,” which means PolicyLink will work with government and community representatives in Baltimore to implement projects and policies that promote an equitable agenda. Besides requiring racial equity assessments and providing funds to projects that lift distressed areas, that could include raising wages, focusing on education access, or changing hiring practices.

At the end of the hearing, before the equity assessment bill was passed, Councilman Scott said, “We know that this [legislation] is not going to solve this problem [of structural inequity] for us overnight. … I don’t expect that to happen in my time in the city government or on the city council.

“But we know that we have to put laws in place that start the conversation, that force us to do things and operate in different ways—so that we are not making the same mistakes as the generations before us.”

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