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Solve Baltimore’s crime problem with economic investment in poor neighborhoods | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Police Department officers investigate a crime scene at Laurens and N. Carey streets.
Baltimore Police Department officers investigate a crime scene at Laurens and N. Carey streets. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Crime continues to be the focus of much of this year’s political campaigns. Yet, little has been said about the structural economic conditions that have helped cultivate the violence in the city.

Development has been disparate as property tax concessions have gone to business interests, while neighborhoods have been left behind. Public infrastructure dollars appear to have followed the same path — downtown and predominately white neighborhoods get the investment and other neighborhoods get an apology.

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The Kerner Commission Report found more than 50 years ago that poverty and racism helped to fuel violence in inner cities like Baltimore, but no one seems to want to address that issue. Baltimore inner city neighborhoods didn’t end up like they are by happenstance, but by decades of systemic racial preferences. White Baltimore and black Baltimore are treated differently.

We are all distracted by the current plight of former mayor Catherine Pugh, who was sentenced to prison for three years over sales of her Healthy Holly books to groups, including the University of Maryland Medical System, that did business with the city and state. But what about other board members at the medical system who had side deals at the public expense? Some crimes are pointed out in black face, others in white entitlement.

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We talk about crime in Baltimore City, but are quiet on Baltimore County, which saw its most deadly year on record. Granted, its homicide rate is much lower, but the trend is also perplexing — violence is on the rise. The opioid epidemic that is the white public health issue of today, was the heroin and crack epidemics of black communities in the tough-on-crime era of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. And it was treated much differently. With much less compassion.

Why the denial of these issues by politicians who can count bodies, but can’t seem to count dollars needed to address longstanding deficits in neighborhood investment, urban renewal and neighborhood master plan delays, and the costs of life expectancy disparities by zip code and census tract?

The next election is about crime, just not the crime everyone is focused on. This election is about the crime of racial indifference that disparages the dignity of poor, mostly black and brown people, rather than a comprehensive urban redevelopment strategy that rebuilds all of Baltimore by a process that advances equity, opportunity and participation for more than just the entitled class.

Where is the plan to close the racial wealth gap in Baltimore when the data shows disparate investment in certain areas? Where is the plan that will leverage the entrepreneurial spirit of many “squeegee” youth to build cooperative enterprises and businesses? Where is the plan that protects the dignity of the homeless in our city, especially homeless kids in our school system struggling to learn because they and their families are fighting to survive?

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Where is the plan that advances partnerships between neighborhood anchor institutions, community-based organizations, neighborhood associations, community development corporations and the city that will revive the very communities these neighborhood institutions have tried to stabilize? Where is the economic agenda that will help close the racial wealth gap in a city more than 60% black?

What will be done to ensure that the profiteering of opportunity zones, which give tax advantages for development in low income areas, does not accelerate the mass displacement of black and brown families hanging on by a thread while hoping that things will get better for them one day? Who will make sure that the latest version of urban renewal doesn’t become “negro removal” — as writer James Baldwin called it in the 1960s — on steroids?

We should all be concerned about violent crime in the city. But there is no more violent of a crime than the generational political indifference about the plight of the poor, disaffected, dispossessed and disregarded in our city, state and nation. The people deserve and demand an agenda that addresses their concerns. The word "what” comes before the word “who” in the dictionary and in politics. Show the people “what” you plan to do to advance the legitimate interests of ALL the people, and the people will show you “who” they support. To do any less is criminal.

Rev. S. Todd Yeary (pastoryeary@douglaschurch.net) is the senior pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore and senior vice president of Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

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