NAACP report urges action on economic inequalities in Baltimore

The NAACP is calling for a crackdown on discriminatory and predatory lending practices in Baltimore — and for the creation of programs that would offer training in vacant-property renovation and other forms of entrepreneurship — in a new report aimed at boosting economic opportunity for “African-Americans and other underserved groups.”

Economists for the civil rights organization spent several months creating the Baltimore Economic Inclusion Plan, a 35-page study documenting disparities in economic opportunity between the city’s white and minority residents.

The study’s authors trace much of the inequality to the lingering effects of public polices that were once used to reinforce racial discrimination in Baltimore — and spend much of the rest of the report recommending steps that could help “eliminate the entrenched poverty that still exists in large swaths of the city,” said Malik Russell, an NAACP spokesman.

The organization is to release the findings at its national headquarters in Northwest Baltimore — and issue parallel reports on socioeconomic conditions in St. Louis and Charlotte, N.C., in those cities Tuesday.

The three cities have faced unrest sparked by acts of what many perceived as police brutality against African-Americans in recent years.

NAACP officials said they decided to commission the reports to unearth deeper problems that may have contributed to the upheavals.

Again and again, the researchers say they came upon data suggesting that systemic economic conditions came together over long periods of time to foster the kind of resentment that surfaced after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., near St. Louis, in 2014; after Freddie Gray died of injuries sustained while he was in police custody in Baltimore in 2015, and after Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by an African-American police officer in Charlotte in 2016.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson said it can be tempting to consider such tragedies in “silos” — focusing on the narrow issue of police brutality in those cases, for example — rather than exploring how the subsequent unrest is related to such issues as unequal access between whites and minorities to housing, job opportunities and good education.

Marvin Owens, Jr., the organization’s director of economic programs, agreed.

“The NAACP understands that economic disparity is a contributing factor to social and political turmoil and, as a result, renews its commitment to support economic inclusion in the communities we serve through advocacy and direct service,” he said.

The NAACP will disseminate the reports through its regional offices and branches throughout the United States, and, Johnson said, the organization hopes it will serve as a blueprint for state and local legislators as well as stakeholders in affected communities.

The authors take an unsparing look at policies that restricted African-Americans’ access to wealth and opportunity for generations in Baltimore.

The city was home to one of America’s largest free black communities during and after slavery, they write, and boasted an unusually high number of black homeowners.

But “during this same time, Baltimore maintained whites-only public baths and playgrounds; public schools in the same neighborhood as blacks were limited to white students, and eventually the city passed the nation’s first law that ordered residential segregation” — an allusion to the infamous Ordinance 610, which declared for several years that it was a crime for African-Americans to live in mostly-white neighborhoods.

“Since that time, the black population in Baltimore has been the target of egregious policies and discriminatory practices,” the report continues. “Redlining, predatory lending, and divestment of public schools have perpetuated poverty and frustrated economic growth for African Americans” — acts that “grew to include mass incarceration and abusive policing.”

The authors draw a straight line between that history and local social unrest, including the riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 and Gray’s death 47 years later.

The report argues that economic conditions failed to improve for African-Americans over the same period of time: the black unemployment rate is currently 13.1 percent in Baltimore, almost four times that for whites, and the median household income for blacks is $35,000 less than for whites.

Similar gaps continue to exist in the areas of housing and educational opportunity, the report continues — gaps that “emerged from racist policies that promoted and reinforced segregation and access to resources” and “continue to mark Baltimore as we move deeper into the 21st Century.”

“Current realities in the Baltimore metropolitan area suggest the harms of the early 20th century are still felt today,” the authors write.

Drawing on reams of academic and sociological research and recent census reports — as well as recommendations shared by residents of the three cities and other stakeholders at town halls last fall — the authors propose dozens of remedies they say could increase economic opportunity in large and small ways, from ideas for reforming the criminal justice and immigration systems to ones meant to increase the numbers of African-American business owners in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

They propose, for example, changes in civil asset forfeiture laws they say disproportionately affect blacks; recommend upgrading school facilities in largely African-American neighborhoods, where buildings are generally older than the norm; call for increasing awareness among black families of the value of reading to and conversing at length with children; recommend the further study of proposals for reparations for the descendants of slaves; and recommend allowing for the transfer of vacant land to community trusts with an eye toward turning them into affordable housing units.

Johnson, who took over as NAACP president in 2017, said he hopes such recommendations in the studies of all three cities can provide a constructive framework for those who govern and live in the dozens of other American metropolitan areas that face the same kind of entrenched inequalities.

“Our goal is not to be ambulance chasers, just to make noise when there has been a high-profile problem,” he says. “We want to go deeper, to understand the complexities that create conditions where some individuals are not allowed to have the quality of life that this country could offer all its citizens.”

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