It’s not our job to defend Rep. Elijah Cummings from President Donald Trump’s Twitter rants. For one thing, he’s quite capable of doing it on his own, and for another, our role isn’t to offer blind loyalty to political leaders of any party but to hold them to account. Likewise, we’re not in the business of defending Baltimore from any and all criticism. Our city has problems, big ones, and we don’t shy away from them, nor do we give any politicians a pass for failing to do as much as humanly possible to fix them. But we are sticklers for facts and perspective, and in case anybody is still interested in those things, we have a few that are worth mentioning.
Mr. Cummings has not single-handedly solved Baltimore’s racial and class inequities, its injustices, its blight, its epidemics of lead poisoning and asthma, its violence or, indeed, its problems with rats. And he has been in office for a long time, more than 30 years between Congress and the Maryland House of Delegates. But Baltimore’s problems go back a lot farther than that.
President Trump, whose early career was marred by a federal housing discrimination suit, may be interested to know that Baltimore was something of a pioneer in that regard. It enacted the first housing segregation ordinances, which were soon invalidated by the Supreme Court, leading to subtler and more nefarious tactics. Racially restrictive covenants, privately enforced, prevented the sale of homes in certain neighborhoods to minorities. Redlining prevented minorities from getting financing to buy homes in white neighborhoods. And blockbusting made rich the unscrupulous men who capitalized on racism and fear to drive white flight. They profiteered on blacks who sought security and better opportunities but instead found themselves exploited and impoverished.
Those days aren’t nearly so far in the past as we might like to think. Just seven years ago, Baltimore settled a landmark lending discrimination suit against Wells Fargo, which steered minority borrowers into subprime mortgages — the sort of abuse the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Mr. Trump has eviscerated, might have prevented. Landlords in Baltimore continue to take advantage of rules stacked in their favor to evict low-income (and frequently minority) tenants; in a particularly egregious example, the Kushner Cos. (as in Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner) has aggressively sought to jail tenants who fall behind on their rent.
As whites moved to the suburbs, sped along the way by massive investments in new highways, water and sewer systems, schools and other public amenities, Baltimore City’s infrastructure began to crumble. Neighborhoods like those in the East and West Baltimore portions of Mr. Cummings’ district became increasingly isolated from economic and educational opportunities. (Mr. Cummings was among the Baltimore leaders who sought to address that problem through the development of a new light rail line connecting those neighborhoods to employment centers including the Social Security Administration and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, but Gov. Larry Hogan, who over the weekend responded to Mr. Trump’s tweets by calling Baltimore “the very heart of the state” and on Monday by asking why politicians aren’t “focused on solving the problems and getting to work,” killed the project.)
Meanwhile, back in the ’90s, Democrats and Republicans both discovered that espousing zero-tolerance policing was great politics, so long as it was enforced disproportionately against blacks and Hispanics in the nation’s cities and not against whites in suburban and rural communities. Plenty of people share blame for that, including former Vice President Joe Biden and former Maryland Gov. (and former Baltimore mayor) Martin O’Malley. But not a lot of them continue to espouse the notion that locking more people up for minor offenses or stopping and frisking people on the streets are good ideas, as the Trump administration has done.
The Obama administration tried to do something about the pockets of concentrated poverty in American cities (and Baltimore specifically) by using federal housing policy to affirmatively foster desegregation, something the Fair Housing Act had called for 50 years before, but Mr. Trump’s HUD secretary, Baltimore’s own Ben Carson, has been working to dismantle those efforts.
We will agree with President Trump on one thing, though. We wish Mr. Cummings weren’t so focused on investigating the Trump administration. We wish, for example, that immigrant children weren’t being held in inhumane conditions at the border, that the White House complied with congressional subpoenas, that administration officials weren’t conducting public business on private email accounts or that the president of the United States didn’t look on the office as a giant profit center for himself and his family. If not for things like that, Mr. Cummings’ role as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform would probably take up much less of his time.