Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Problems: Segregation

It's 2009. African-Americans are serving as both Mayor of Baltimore and President of the United States. Yet Baltimore is still a very segregated city, over 40 years after the Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts were signed by Lyndon Johnson.

It's a problem that often dare not speak its name, at least loudly, in polite conversation around Charm City. But when it comes to where people live at least, there are very few neighborhoods in this city whose populations contain a substantial mix of white and African-American residents.

When looking for apartments around town last summer, my wife and I saw the issue, for once, when it could be most handily utilized by one landlord or another, pushed to the foreground. A friendly enough Roland Park resident who sought to rent us a nice apartment near Johns Hopkins University turned up the pressure with what he must have thought was the "light touch" after we told him we needed time to think about it:

"Well don't wait too long," he said, "because the way things work around here is that it's easy to rent an apartment in wintertime. But the closer you get to September, when all the college students come back, the harder it is to find a place. And pretty soon you're going to find yourself on Greenmount Ave, in the 'hood". (emphasis added)

To far too many of the white residents of the city, "Good neighborhoods" in Baltimore, are invariably white neighborhoods. Bad neighborhoods are invariably black or, now to a small but growing extent, Latino. These "definitions" provide easy to recognize visual cues for the supposed safety of a particular area: all you have to do is look out the window of your car and see what ethnic group surrounds you. These lazy simplifications do nothing to provide people any understanding of the social stratification taking place within the African-American community. Some black neighborhoods are wealthier and have much less crime than others, but many white residents of the city are unaware of this, choosing simply to look at the color of the neighborhood before making a sweeping judgment that it's not a place they want to be. Worse yet is that the connections needed to form a community that serves all of us, with institutions all of us can trust and rely on, are never made due to the fears and prejudgments of those who hold us back.

Yet despite the obviousness of the segregation that surrounds us every day, it is rarely if ever even talked about, let alone addressed in any substantive way that could bring about a more unified, integrated city. This needs to change.

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