The unrest in Baltimore is not only about racism. It reflects, above all, the desolate state of many ghettos in America. Drugs and violence fuel the social decay.
In 1910, a black graduate from the prestigious Yale law school caused an uproar in Baltimore when he wanted to buy a house in one of the city’s white neighborhoods. The community responded with a law allowing blacks to live only in certain neighborhoods. The mayor at that time declared, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease in the nearby white neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the white majority.”
When the American constitutional law abolished this policy in 1917, other means were used. The city supported the formation of white homeowner associations that committed themselves not to sell to blacks. They should kindly stay in their ghettos.
In order to understand the explosive mix of despair and poverty in America’s inner-city slums, one needs to look at the decades-old policies of discrimination, which forced blacks into certain neighborhoods and systematically impeded their chances of advancement — a policy that is in no way limited to Baltimore, or even just the South and the former slave states, but also applied to northern America and its once booming industrial cities.
This policy continued in Baltimore and in other places through the “redlining” by the national housing authorities in the 1930s and 1940s. Neighborhoods such as Sandtown-Winchester, where the murdered Freddie Gray grew up — the center of last week’s unrest — were declared as zones in which the state would not grant loans to purchase real estate.
Blacks Were Denied the Purchase of Real Estate
Many blacks were thus prevented from prospering through real estate and from advancing, like many white people did between 1930 and 1960. Instead, they had to pay excessive rents or take out pay-day loans, which meant they would lose everything they’d already paid and the house if they missed even one single payment. The dream of joining the middle class was far more difficult to achieve for blacks than for the white majority.
America and Baltimore are in many respects very different today. For decades now the city has been ruled by black mayors and by city councils that are predominantly black, and the country is led by a black president. The most important dividing rule nowadays is not skin color, but class. Except that now, the lower class is made up of an above-average number of blacks, who were more affected by economic shocks (e.g. the deindustrialization of cities like Baltimore since the ‘70s) than the white middle classes due to an absent financial buffer and bad education.
Parts of the deplorable state of America’s inner-city slums can be explained by the history of socio-economic discrimination. However, it does not explain everything. Baltimore’s first black mayor invested $130 million into the development of Sandtown-Winchester in the 1990s, but it did not do much to change the desolate circumstances. The ghettos are not just under pressure from external factors anymore, but erosion from the inside has also started — a moral and social decay.
The drug wave and the accompanying violence and crime have ruined or killed many people and have destroyed the social cohesion in the poor areas. And whereas family backgrounds in the American middle class have visibly stabilized after the high divorce rates of the ‘70s, they are crumbling more and more in the lower class.
Many Children Grow Up Without a Father
Throughout the whole of Baltimore, 60 percent of children are growing up with only one parent, the percentage being even higher in the run-down neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Most children grow up without fathers and have never known what it is like to grow up in a family that is intact. Moreover, education is disregarded, especially among male teenagers.
Researchers have found that violence, drug consumption and alcoholism of family members, living on streets ruled by gangs, and the lack of emotional support in families put the children in America’s slums under an emotional pressure that is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by war veterans. The combination of all this leads to discontentment, which then ends in sporadic bouts of violence. The death of Freddie Gray while in police custody only prompted the unrest; it was not the root cause.
There was jubilation in Baltimore’s poor areas after the prosecution conducted a homicide investigation against the six police officers who were involved in Freddie Gray’s death. For far too long has undue police violence, which incidentally is committed by black as well as white officers in Baltimore, gone unpunished.
The proceedings can be seen as progress, and will have a deterrent effect on the police, who seem to have lost any inhibition in the war against drugs in recent decades. Nonetheless, the problems in the cities’ poor areas are by no means solved.
A Toxic Story of Discrimination
In truth, nobody knows how to effectively deal with the toxic mix of the old story of discrimination and inner decay, typical of the problem areas in many American cities. Every time problems like the current situation in Baltimore come into the spotlight, there is a demand for job creation in order to increase prospects for these people.
However, the old industrial jobs, with which one could earn a living with basic skills and little schooling, have moved to Asia. And even for poorly paid service activities, employers often choose Hispanic immigrants nowadays, as they are more reliable than the kids from the black ghettos, who often do not have basic qualifications.
Even promoting a culture of self-victimization like famous black leaders did, or continuously calling on the state, which as the case of Baltimore demonstrated cannot achieve much even with a lot of money, does not help. Yes, society can do more to help the kids get out of the ghetto. However, without any effort on their part, without the will to advance through education or a stable family background, it will hardly be successful.