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Baltimore leaders agree: City has a race problem

Does Baltimore have a 1950s-era racism problem?

Twice in recent weeks, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has made a startling statement to national audiences: Baltimore is still dealing with 1950s- and 1960s-era racism.

The statement, which comes as the city is seeing population growth for the first time in decades, could have been viewed as a step backward, a self-inflicted wound. Instead, it has triggered a wide-ranging discussion of the issue around Baltimore — and met with relatively little disagreement.

"I agree with him wholeheartedly," said attorney A. Dwight Pettit, an African-American lawyer who has been a fierce critic of the police force and has represented a number of residents in police brutality lawsuits. "Baltimore is still in the Dark Ages in terms of racial and economic disparities."

Even some who maintain sunny views of the Baltimore's future praise Batts for bringing an ugly subject to light — even if they feel he is using hyperbole to do so.

P. David Bramble, a black developer whose firm owns Eastpoint Mall and is working on a 20-acre project with apartments, shopping and a hotel in East Baltimore, has seen potential investors react to the wide divide between prosperous and run-down neighborhoods.

"You go feast to famine in a matter of blocks, and it's very stark for people who are from out of town," said Bramble, managing partner of MCB Real Estate LLC. "I certainly don't think that we're dealing with '50s racism, but I can tell you we're dealing with a massive socioeconomic gap of the haves and have-nots."

Batts' comments come as racial issues have leapt to the forefront in many parts of the nation. Last week, several incidents served as flash points.

In Missouri, two police officers were shot in the town of Ferguson, where the killing of an unarmed black teen has sparked months of protests.

At the University of Oklahoma, a fraternity was shut down after video surfaced of members chanting a racist song.

And in Baltimore County, the community of Bowleys Quarters was under scrutiny after the discovery of racial threats on a community Facebook group.

To be sure, Baltimore no longer has the obvious signs of the Jim Crow era: separate water fountains, segregated lunch counters and balcony seating for blacks in theaters. Many other racial barriers have been breached — the city has had a number of black officials, including congressmen and mayors, and Batts is not the first black police commissioner. Meanwhile, inner-city churches of black and white congregants volunteer in AIDS outreach programs, and cultural groups such as Center Stage are capturing more diverse audiences.

But many city leaders say the city remains as segregated and racially polarized as ever.

Batts told The Baltimore Sun that his comments were designed to shake up the city and start conversations to create solutions — not malign Baltimore's image.

"I'm sorry if people are upset," he said. "These are things that the citizens here have said to me and are echoing from many different parts of the city. ... I think we need to be honest on how to move our city forward."

It's a bold position for a police commissioner who grew up on the West Coast and has been on the job for less than three years — a time in which his department has come under fire and federal scrutiny for police brutality that many say is part of the problem.

Legacy of segregation

Racial segregation has a long history in Baltimore. In 1911, Mayor J. Barry Mahool and the City Council passed the country's first racially restrictive zoning law. It prohibited members of one racial group from buying a house in a block dominated by another race. When the Supreme Court struck that down in 1917, Baltimore had another response: Neighborhoods such as Roland Park required homeowners to sign covenants barring African-Americans.

"We're the genesis of where there was the apartheid practice in the United States," said Lawrence Brown, an African-American community activist and professor of health policy and management at Morgan State University. "Baltimore is a city that has not escaped the legacy of these very restrictive apartheid-type legacies."

Roland Park is still largely white, Brown pointed out, and city neighborhoods remain largely segregated.

Last month, Batts referred to such divisions as he gave a task force convened by President Barack Obama his perception of the city.

"When I go to Baltimore, on the East Coast, I'm dealing with 1950s-level black-and-white racism," he said. "It's taken a step back. Everything's either black or everything's white, and we're dealing with that as a community."

In a C-SPAN interview two weeks later, he said moving from California to Baltimore "was like going back in time."

In his interview with The Sun, Batts said that when he arrived in Baltimore in the fall of 2012, his command staff warned him that if he promoted a white officer he needed to balance the decision by also promoting a black officer. He said, "That hit me and I said, 'Why?' Shouldn't we promote based on merit?"

As he began visiting neighborhoods, he saw stark differences between well-to-do communities populated mainly by whites and dilapidated neighborhoods occupied mainly by blacks. Black mothers complained about the lack of food, let alone opportunity for youths. Businessmen asked what could be done to lower the homicide rate.

Batts believed the issues were connected and could only be addressed by getting Baltimoreans together to talk about citywide inequalities instead of worrying about neighborhood problems.

He said he has taken steps to transform the Police Department, urging more officers to volunteer in city reading programs and requiring patrol officers to spend part of their shifts on foot getting to know residents. He wants to double attendance at a Police Explorer camp that provides meals for children. And he has proposed creating teams of mental health workers and officers to respond to disturbances when a suspect's mental illness could be a factor.

Now he hopes his bold statements about Baltimore's racial climate will trigger a broader discussion about healing the city.

"There's a little bit of a spark here," he said. "Now's the opportunity to make that happen."

Entrenched problems

Brown is glad someone took the lead in addressing such entrenched issues.

Batts "probably says some things that aren't politically expedient, but they are social truths, they are social realities," Brown said. "And I think he's strong and courageous for saying these things."

But Brown said the police commissioner also needs to find ways to recondition officers who come into the city with an "implicit bias" that blacks are dangerous.

A six-month Baltimore Sun investigation last year found that more than 100 people had won a total of nearly $6 million in court judgments or settlements related to allegations of police brutality and civil rights violations. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed during questionable arrests; others were thrown to the pavement. Most often, the victims were African-Americans.

Brown thinks the commissioner is trying to address internal racial issues before the U.S. Department of Justice — which is conducting a review of the Police Department — forces the agency to change.

Baltimore City Councilman Robert Curran, who is white, said he does "not totally disagree" with Batts. A lot of the issues he has dealt with over two decades on the council have broken sharply on racial lines.

"But that being said, [Batts] also comes from little more laid-back region, from 'La La Land,' which is what I call Los Angeles and California," Curran said. "That's a different, more laid-back environment than the old East Coast industrial cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore."

Batts grew up in Los Angeles, and last held police chief positions in Long Beach, Calif., where 14 percent of the population is black, and in Oakland, Calif., where 28 percent of the population is African-American.

In Baltimore, meanwhile, 63 percent of residents are black and 24 percent live below the poverty line. The city's makeup changed dramatically after the 1968 riots, when many whites moved to the suburbs; a large number of blacks have also moved, creating a large middle-class enclave in the Randallstown/Owings Mills area of Baltimore County.

According to a census study by the Brookings Institution and the University of Michigan Social Science Data Analysis Network, Batts came from an even more segregated area. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Anna ranked as the nation's 10th-most-segregated metro area. Baltimore ranked 19th, while Oakland-San Francisco-Fremont ranked 34th.

Curran said he also knows another Baltimore, one where blacks and whites worked side by side in manufacturing plants, warehouses and the docks. Curran was a grocery store worker and quality control foreman at Domino Sugar for years, workplaces that he said were well integrated.

"I was able to coalesce with blacks and whites, where we all got our jobs done so we could all get home every day," said Curran, whose council district is just a third white.

'A long way to go'

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, an African-American, also mingles with people of all races. But she said it's not seen as normal — which bothers her.

"To this day, if I go out with a mixed crowd, people are automatically suspicious, questioning: 'How do you know this person?'" she said. "We have a long way to go."

In 2015, she said, Baltimoreans should be able to rattle off neighborhoods that are integrated. But that's still a struggle.

"Baltimore, like many other cities, still faces the challenges of racism," Rawlings-Blake said. "1950s? I can't speak to that. I haven't seen that. But we still are much too segregated, unfortunately. While we've made a lot of progress, there's still more progress that can be made and should be made."

Gregory E. Thornton, who was hired last year as CEO of the city school system, said he has noticed that Baltimore is a "tale of two cities," where the economic and racial divides go hand in hand. He also has noticed something about how black boys are represented in rankings on achievement, suspensions and other factors.

"Everything they're first in, they should be last in," said Thornton, who is African-American. "And everything they're last in, they should be first in."

Some in the business community do not see a black or white city — but one growing more prosperous.

Bramble, the developer involved in a mixed-use project near Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, said the city's racial and poverty issues aren't discouraging investors. He said Batts' comments, which were broadcast nationally, wouldn't deter them either.

"At the end of the day, investors are going to come and see for themselves what makes sense and what doesn't make sense," he said.

William H. Cole IV, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. and a former City Council member, said he has not heard of any company refusing to consider the city because of crime or racial tensions. Cole, who is white, considers Baltimore's diversity an important selling point.

Pettit, the attorney, said the issues that held back America 50 years ago — such as racism, police brutality and segregation — are resurfacing today.

"The nation has gone backward," the 69-year-old said. "Baltimore is a shining example of what is wrong in America."

Amid the discussion of police and race relations, Pettit said, it's fair to say that Batts needs to "clean up his own house" and curb allegations of police brutality. Batts and the mayor say settlements involving police misconduct claims are dropping.

But Batts also is right to call for a broad conversation about race, Pettit said.

"The Police Department can't do it alone," he said. "The department is just one aspect of it."

Working toward healing

Debra Rubino, curator for the Open Society Institute's "Talking About Race" series, said ridding Baltimore of "implicit bias" built into the consciousness of people is a step toward breaking up the segregation.

She said the institute began a public conversation about race in 2009 after finding that it was a factor in local issues such as access to addiction treatment and quality health care, the "overuse of incarceration" and the rate of school suspensions.

These problems "wouldn't exist if they didn't have the issue of race, or the disparity wouldn't be as large," said Rubino, who is white.

The series has drawn large crowds, she said. "We didn't know there would be a such a huge hunger for this type of conversation. After every single event people say, 'How can we do more here to bridge that divide?' That's a major challenge for us."

On Thursday, a group of black and white people gathered in the basement of St. Peter Claver Church in West Baltimore to try to close that gap. They had come to take part in a "Prayer Walk for Peace."

Bishop Denis Madden of the Archdiocese of Baltimore has been holding the walks for years, stopping to pray at spots where young black men have been shot or killed. He sees a problem when he compares the black faces on the streets to the white faces in boardrooms and offices.

"It's the subtleties of it," said Madden, who is white. "The leaders of the foundations, the CEOs, the disproportion of who's black and white."

The small group of volunteers walked past a vacant building on St. Peter Claver Way before turning onto Presstman Street, their feet ambling over broken sidewalks and crunching through shards of liquor bottles. A seminary student led the way, carrying a wooden cross with a black figure representing the crucified Jesus.

The group stopped at the home of the mother of Donte Downer, 29, who was gunned down nearby on Jan. 17. As she sat on her steps, head hung, members prayed.

A marcher, Paul Barksdale, 67, one of the few black deacons in the Baltimore Archdiocese, has lived in Baltimore all his life.

"Segregation was the mainstay," he said of the 1950s and '60s. But he noted that era was also marked by a strong black leadership and middle class, which has since moved to the suburbs.

"It has been a downward spiral since then," he said.

Alongside marched Danny Cogut, a deacon studying at St. Mary's Seminary and University. While living here, the Northern Virginia native said, he has lived in a well-to-do area while working in impoverished city neighborhoods marred by some of the worst blight he has ever seen.

There are two Baltimores, he said. And the differences are especially stark when considered from the seminary on the edge of prosperous Roland Park.

As Cogut, who is half Filipino, said, "We're frankly pretty sheltered from the realities of the city."

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger, Luke Broadwater and Erica Green contributed to this article.

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