How Some Baltimore Neighborhoods Reflect Segregation's Legacy
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Scenes of West Baltimore's troubled neighborhoods do raise natural questions. One is why they seem heavily segregated generations after legal segregation ended.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Richard Rothstein studied that question. He's with the Economic Policy Institute, and he says Baltimore neighborhoods reflect a national legacy of segregation. Generations ago, during President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the federal government started subsidizing a lot of housing. But they did it a certain way.
RICHARD ROTHSTEIN: The New Deal was a coalition of Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats. The Southern Democrats were segregationist, and in many cases, the Northern Democrats compromised with them in order to get housing programs enacted.
INSKEEP: From the 1930s onward, white people moved into new houses. Many were in new suburbs like Levittown, N.Y. Black people got public housing apartments in the same center cities where they already lived. Decades later, there's an enormous gap between the grandchildren of one group and the grandchildren of the other.
ROTHSTEIN: In 1947, when Levittown was first opened, homes were sold to white, working-class families for about $8,000 apiece. That is about $125,000 today. African-Americans were prohibited from buying into those developments, even though they had the economic means to do so.
Well, a half-century later, those homes are now selling for $500,000. They are no longer accessible for working-class families. We passed a law in 1968 saying that African-Americans now have the right to buy into Levittown. But giving them a right to buy into a place that's no longer affordable when they could have bought into it when it was affordable had they been permitted to do so is not a very meaningful right. In that half-century, the white families, working-class families who moved into Levittown gained equity appreciation of perhaps 350-400,000 dollars They used that wealth to send their children to college. They bequeathed it to their children and grandchildren.
African-Americans living in crowded central city areas were able to accumulate none of that wealth. As a result, today, nationwide, African-American wealth is 5 percent of white family wealth. That enormous difference is entirely attributable to federal housing policy, to suburbanize the white population and keep African-Americans in central cities.
INSKEEP: Now, help me connect this history to the news because we've been focused on Baltimore because of a police force that is accused of - well, a number of police officers are accused of killing a man, and we have reports of a pattern of this kind of abuse. What is the connection between historic housing segregation and historic wealth gaps and this kind of police behavior in a community?
ROTHSTEIN: Well, the police behavior is something that should be remedied. It's a terrible criminal operation on the part of the police departments. But it doesn't start with police departments. When you have a low-income population concentrated in the area, little hope, unemployment rates in places like inner city of Baltimore are two and three times the rate for whites, well, you get behavior in those kind of communities that reinforces police hostility. It becomes a cycle of misbehavior and police aggression, and it's attributable to the concentration of disadvantaged families in very crowded inner-city communities.
INSKEEP: In recent days, have you found yourself yelling at the TV that everybody is missing the point?
ROTHSTEIN: I try - I hope I don't sound like I'm yelling.
INSKEEP: Muttering at the TV, let us say.
ROTHSTEIN: Well, I do think that Americans have forgotten this history of a purposeful, racial segregation. You know, in 1970, during Richard Nixon's first term, he had a secretary of housing and urban development, George Romney, the father of the recent presidential candidate. Romney said that the federal government has created a white noose around African-American communities in urban areas, and it was the federal government's obligation to untie that noose. And he implemented a series of programs designed to force metropolitan areas to desegregate. He denied federal funds for sewers and for water projects to communities that didn't take action to desegregate, and he actually denied federal funds to Baltimore County because it refused to desegregate its area.
Eventually, the Nixon administration reined him in. The program he was following was terminated. He was forced out of the secretary of housing and urban development, and we haven't had anything that aggressive since. But we once knew, the American public knew, even moderate Republicans like George Romney knew that the federal government had established the segregation, and they understood it was a federal government obligation to undo it. But since that time, we've forgotten this history, and we think somehow these ghettos arose by accident and there's nothing we can do about them to reverse the segregation.
INSKEEP: Richard Rothstein, thanks very much.
ROTHSTEIN: Thank you.
INSKEEP: He's with the Economic Policy Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.