From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation
By RICHARD ROTHSTEIN
Apr 29 2015
In Baltimore in 1910, a black Yale law school graduate purchased a home in a previously all-white neighborhood. The Baltimore city government reacted by adopting a residential segregation ordinance, restricting African Americans to designated blocks. Explaining the policy, Baltimore’s mayor proclaimed, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”
Thus began a century of federal, state, and local policies to quarantine Baltimore’s black population in isolated slums—policies that continue to the present day, as federal housing subsidy policies still disproportionately directlow-income black families to segregated neighborhoods and away from middle class suburbs.
Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on. These are all good, necessary, and important things to do. But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.
In 1968, following hundreds of similar riots nationwide, a commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson concluded that “[o]ur nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” and that “[s]egregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.” The Kerner Commission (headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner) added that “[w]hat white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
In the last 50 years, the two societies have become even more unequal. Although a relatively small black middle class has been permitted to integrate itself into mainstream America, those left behind are more segregated now than they were in 1968.
When the Kerner Commission blamed “white society” and “white institutions,” it employed euphemisms to avoid naming the culprits everyone knew at the time. It was not a vague white society that created ghettos but government—federal, state, and local—that employed explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations to ensure that black Americans would live impoverished, and separately from whites. Baltimore’s ghetto was not created by private discrimination, income differences, personal preferences, or demographic trends, but by purposeful action of government in violation of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments. These constitutional violations have never been remedied, and we are paying the price in the violence we saw this week.
Following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August, I wrote The Making of Ferguson, a history of the state-sponsored segregation in St. Louis County that set the stage for police-community hostility there. Virtually every one of the racially explicit federal, state, and local policies of segregation pursued in St. Louis has a parallel in policies pursued by government in Baltimore.
In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court found ordinances like Baltimore’s 1910 segregation rule unconstitutional, not because they abridged African Americans’ rights to live where they could afford, but because they restricted the property rights of (white) homeowners to sell to whomever they wished. Baltimore’s mayor responded by instructing city building inspectors and health department investigators to cite for code violations anyone who rented or sold to blacks in predominantly white neighborhoods. Five years later, the next Baltimore mayor formalized this approach by forming an official Committee on Segregation and appointing the City Solicitor to lead it. The committee coordinated the efforts of the building and health departments with those of the real estate industry and white community organizations to apply pressure to any whites tempted to sell or rent to blacks. Members of the city’s real estate board, for example, accompanied building and health inspectors to warn property owners not to violate the city’s color line.