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The deep roots of racial injustice

It was hard not to see history on the TV screen Monday. Burning and looting on the streets of east and west Baltimore recalled the last time the national guard was called out to the city, on an April night 47 years ago following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Conversations about individual law breakers and the destruction of property obscure our view of history, however. Yet it's not hard to find, if we pull the camera lens back from the burning cars on North and Fulton, and take a look around.

It's a short walk from North and Fulton to 1834 McCulloh street, where in1910 W. Ashbie Hawkins, a black lawyer, dared purchase a house on the white side of west Baltimore's unofficial color line. White outrage sparked the eventual passage of Baltimore's West Ordinance, the first law of its kind in the country to make it illegal for blacks and whites to live on the same block. Restricting property rights in order to prevent the expansion of the black community was a theme woven into the creation of Baltimore's elite white neighborhoods as well. In 1913, homes in the newly built Guilford development had restrictions barring sale to blacks written into their deeds.

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The New Deal brought new ways to isolate black neighborhoods. The promise of federal funds for slum clearance and public housing construction sparked the imaginations of planners and politicians across the country. In northwest Baltimore a detailed study from1934 recommended that federal funds could be used to divide the neighborhood "into two areas, one for the whites and one for negroes." The black neighborhood, the report continued "is truly a blighted area next to a good white residential neighborhood, and, if rehabilitated, would offer a splendid barrier against the encroachment of colored [people]." This site would become McCulloh Homes and help establish the pattern of using public housing construction to reinforce racial boundaries. A few years later, protest against building public housing in outlying white neighborhoods would lead to the construction of Gilmor Homes in the historically black Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where Freddie Gray lived.

These early forms of government-led residential segregation set the stage for the systematic removal of wealth from black neighborhoods. The New Deal also saw the advent of the Home Owners Loan Corporation and its appraisal system of "residential security maps" used to evaluate loan requests made by individuals to banks across the country. Sandtown-Winchester, Freddie Gray's neighborhood and location of some of Monday's fires, was redlined on these maps, a clear signal to banks to avoid lending there. Meanwhile FHA- backed mortgages brought homeownership in reach of millions of white families, and helped facilitate the growth of the suburbs. This homeownership gap remains to this day, and is a significant source of the disparities in wealth between whites and blacks that persists across occupations.

The legacy of redlining and the still-potent processes of residential segregation helped to create an outlet for subprime mortgages in the past decade. When it became profitable for banks to peddle these risky loans, they found in segregated neighborhoods what sociologists Jacob Rugh and Douglas Massey refer to as "dense concentrations of potentially exploitable clients." Former employees of Wells Fargo in Baltimore explained how the bank deliberately targeted black neighborhoods for subprime loans, referring to black borrowers as "mud people" and the products as "ghetto loans." On the other side of the subprime wave have come foreclosures, which now mark neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester with the newest evidence of systematic wealth extraction.

And so we come full circle, back to Freddie Gray's neighborhood and our own time. Taking a close look at that neighborhood and the century of policies that shaped it and countless others like it across America reminds us that racial injustice has deep roots in our cities. Looking forward, we must be aware of these roots and their consequences, not just for youth in segregated neighborhoods, but for those of us who partake in the opportunities amassed in white neighborhoods and suburbs, far removed from the Baltimore that the world saw Monday night.

Peter Rosenblatt is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Loyola University Chicago. He is a Baltimore native and received his Ph.D from Johns Hopkins University. This piece draws on research for his doctoral thesis on race and public housing in Baltimore, and he recently completed a study of the Sandtown-Winchester Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. His email is prosenblatt@luc.edu.

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