In the last year, the killing of black men by police has become visible as an epidemic. Less visible—at least to those baffled by the scenes of mass unrest in the streets of Baltimore—is the impoverishment of black families. With a median net worth of just $6,446, African-American households in 2011 were 10 percent poorer than they were in 1984, according to a Pew Research poll. In contrast, median net worth for a white family in 2014 was $142,000. Today, the average black family has approximately 1/17 the wealth of the average white family.
In Baltimore, this widening economic gap between black and white has been exacerbated by an urban landscape that has physically and socially isolated poor black Baltimoreans from their neighbors. To understand the anger in West Baltimore and the reasons police brutality has not abated, we need to understand this history.
In 1950, Baltimore was the sixth-largest city in the country, with a population of roughly 1 million. At the time, the Sparrows Point Steel Mill was one of the largest employers in the city, with 30,000 employees. It produced over 10,000 tons of steel per day. At the mill’s height of production during World War II, blacks comprised a third of its workforce, a higher percentage than most other mills in the nation. These were relatively stable jobs, particularly after 1941, when African-American votes swung the balance in favor of unionization.
According to historian Linda Zeidman, there was not enough housing for workers near the mill during the 1930s and 1940s. Since the neighborhoods of Dundalk and Highlandtown to the plant’s immediate northwest were segregated, many African-American steelworkers settled 15 miles away in West Baltimore, one of the only neighborhoods where they could buy or rent property. Unionized and generally well-paid steel workers received decent health insurance, sick pay and vacation time between 1945 and 1970.
Then, in the early 1970s, foreign competition for steel resulted in huge job cuts. Three thousand workers lost their jobs in 1971; 7,000 more in 1975. By the late 1980s, the mill employed only 8,000 people. Those astonishing job losses devastated West Baltimore. Overall, Baltimore lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs by 1995, and the city’s population shrunk by 35 percent. Today, the city is the 26th largest by population in the United States.
As the devastation took hold, many Baltimoreans with means migrated across the jurisdictional boundary between Baltimore City and Baltimore County into newly built suburban neighborhoods. Some of those neighborhoods specifically forbade African-Americans, Jews and sometimes Catholics from moving in. Simultaneously in the city, banks used federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation–produced maps to determine whom they would and would not lend to. Those maps marked red most of what became known as the “inner city.” Citing the risk of lending in neighborhoods characterized by “undesirable racial concentrations,” banks did not issue loans to those living within the red zones. In short, poor blacks became physically and economically trapped in parts of inner East and inner West Baltimore as whites and those with means moved into the county. Free of the city’s tax burden, many county residents paid only peripheral attention to the urban crisis unfolding just miles from their new homes. Not even Mayor William D. Schaefer’s desperate branding of Baltimore as “Charm City” in 1975 could stanch the bleeding.