Baltimore could be a model for racial and economic equality

Op-ed: Baltimore could become a model for other cities in creating a path to racial and economic equity for al

The racial economic divide in Baltimore isn't pretty.

Average white household income in Baltimore is nearly two times that of black households. The unemployment rate for workers of color is three times the rate for white workers. And just 13 percent of black adults in Baltimore finish a bachelor's degree or higher compared to 51 percent of white adults, according to a recent report from the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED).

But there is a positive flip side to the Baltimore story: The city is poised to become a model for other cities across the country in creating a path to racial and economic equity for all residents.

For starters, Baltimore and its people of color are performing better than other big city communities of color. Baltimore's African American median income of $33,801 beats Chicago ($30,303), New Orleans ($25,806) and Miami ($21,212), each of which was also recently studied by CFED. Even in comparison to whites, median-income blacks in Baltimore are doing better, making 54 percent of white household income compared to anywhere between 30 percent and 43 percent in the three other cities.

In terms of poverty rates and home ownership, a disturbing divide remains between black and white Baltimore residents. However, black Baltimoreans are in a significantly better situation than African Americans in the three other cities mentioned.

Baltimore is a predominantly black city with a black population surrounding it that is much more socio-economically secure. The Maryland African-American population makes almost $25,000 more a year in median income than those who reside in Baltimore City and they have a college degree or higher at two times the rate of black Baltimore residents. Baltimore also is part of the D.C. metro area where a million jobs are expected to be created by 2045.

Additionally, Baltimore is among the most affordable places in Maryland to purchase and own a home. Right now, large anchor institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and Under Armour are making significant investments in infrastructure and housing development that will provide greater opportunity for their employees.

Considering these macro- and micro-economic factors, Baltimore is well positioned to foster economic growth over the next 20 years. Most often economic growth in a city means the displacement of economically disenfranchised communities and new developments that manage to maintain historic racial segregation. To avoid this national pattern of "development," Baltimore must implement a "racial equity audit" of all future development and investments. That means taking deliberate policy intervention to limit gentrification and ongoing housing segregation while ensuring affordable home ownership and investment in low wealth communities — and not just resources for new high-wealth residents.

Government leaders can begin this process by taking a hard look at current policies and applying the Associated Black Charities' "Ten Essential Questions for Policy Development," which place racial equity at the forefront of effective policy. Among the key questions to consider: Will the policy increase access and opportunity for communities of color? Will the policy protect against racial violence, racial profiling and discrimination?

As part of this process, civic and elected leaders should engage nonprofits working in Baltimore communities, especially those led by and serving people of color. CFED's Racial Wealth Divide Initiative is currently working with six such organizations — Bon Secours Community Works, Center for Urban Families, Druid Heights CDC, Latino Economic Development Center, Muse 360 Arts and Urban Alliance/Baltimore —to support and strengthen their efforts to expand economic opportunity in low-income communities.

Baltimore, long a symbol of racial inequality and economic disenfranchisement, has the opportunity to become a national leader in addressing racial economic inequality. The question is will the city's leadership, along with the business, civic and philanthropic communities, take on the challenge and do the hard work to make Baltimore a 21st century model of development — development that bridges the divides of the past and creates a new and inspiring future for the city, its residents and the entire country?

Dedrick Asante-Muhammad (dasantemuhammad@CFED.org) is a Senior Fellow and Kylie Patterson is a Senior Manager with the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at the Washington-based Corporation for Enterprise Development.

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