This is a must-read piece from Richard Rothstein on the history of government policies which created the isolated, inescapable poverty we see in places like inner city Baltimore. Note that the publisher, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a left-leaning think tank: Blaming government programs for economic problems like poverty is not the default here. But that’s exactly what this article does—and how:
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.
Like Ta-Nehisi Coates in his enormous article for The Atlantic last year, a major focus here is federal housing policies from the Twentieth Century, which systematically forced black Americans into the worst housing available. Coates’ piece is a tour de force, but Rothstein features a devastating three-paragraph summary by
Rutgers University’s Beryl Satter of the effects of redlining and other intentionally discriminatory government housing policies:
Because black contract buyers knew how easily they could lose their homes, they struggled to make their inflated monthly payments. Husbands and wives both worked double shifts. They neglected basic maintenance. They subdivided their apartments, crammed in extra tenants and, when possible, charged their tenants hefty rents. …
White people observed that their new black neighbors overcrowded and neglected their properties. Overcrowded neighborhoods meant overcrowded schools; in Chicago, officials responded by “double-shifting” the students (half attending in the morning, half in the afternoon). Children were deprived of a full day of schooling and left to fend for themselves in the after-school hours. These conditions helped fuel the rise of gangs, which in turn terrorized shop owners and residents alike.
In the end, whites fled these neighborhoods, not only because of the influx of black families, but also because they were upset about overcrowding, decaying schools and crime. They also understood that the longer they stayed, the less their property would be worth. But black contract buyers did not have the option of leaving a declining neighborhood before their properties were paid for in full—if they did, they would lose everything they’d invested in that property to date. Whites could leave—blacks had to stay.
The ramifications here are enormous. Contra the “they should work harder like our ancestors did” narrative that many white Americans espouse, we might well marvel that any black Americans succeeded in joining the middle class given the decades of active legal opposition they often met from every level of government.
Rothstein notes that the effects of these government policies are still very much felt today:
Nationwide, black family incomes are now about 60 percent of white family incomes, but black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth. In Baltimore and elsewhere, the distressed condition of African American working- and lower-middle-class families is almost entirely attributable to federal policy that prohibited black families from accumulating housing equity during the suburban boom that moved white families into single-family homes from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s—and thus from bequeathing that wealth to their children and grandchildren, as white suburbanites have done.
It is terrible to imagine how different cities like Baltimore might look today were these policies never implemented.