A Much-Needed History Lesson on Baltimore

baltimore policeIf you’ve asked yourself, “What the heck was all that rioting in Baltimore about?” or if you think it was just about problems with policing, we can’t recommend strongly enough that your read this article on the Economic Policy Institute’s blog. Author Richard Rothstein lays out more than a century of state, federal and local policies that segregated African-Americans in Baltimore. Here’s a snippet:

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.

It is critical that progressive advocates learn this history. Here at Public Works, we have made a concerted effort to address this dark side of government as we promote the idea that government is a tool for achieving great things. Communities of color have plenty of reason to be skeptical. But we believe that only by bringing people of diverse backgrounds, experiences and cultures into the conversation can be build a government that meets their needs and strives for the common good.

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