Racial Segregation and the Baltimore Riots

By: Leland Ware

The April riots in Baltimore, Maryland, were shocking, but in retrospect, should not have been a surprise. The tensions between the police officers and African Americans living in segregated, inner-city communities have been festering for decades. The problems attributable to segregation can be traced to the early decades of the 20th century when American ghettos were deliberately created and maintained by public and private institutions.

Despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968, segregation is perpetuated now through an interlocking set of individual actions, institutional practices and governmental policies. Extreme racial isolation has caused the deterioration of social and economic fabric in black communities.

Segregated neighborhoods were created during and after World War I when African Americans began to relocate in large numbers to cities in the north and Midwest. They were attracted by the availability of factory jobs which paid much more than the agricultural work they performed in the south. They were also escaping the extreme racism, violence and intimidation to which they were routinely subjected in the south.

Northern cities reacted by enacting ordinances which limited the areas in which African Americans could reside. The ordinances were challenged and, in 1917, they were struck down by the Supreme Court in Buchanan v Warley as violations of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In the years following Buchanan the real estate industry resorted a different device to enforce segregation. Racially restrictive covenants were clauses in deeds that prohibited homeowners and subsequent purchasers from conveying their property racial minorities.

In 1926 the Supreme Court implicitly endorsed the racial covenants when it declined to review an appellate court decision, Corrigan v. Buckley, which held that covenants were and private agreements that were not subject to the Fourteenth Amendment (which only applies to official state or local actions.) By the early 1930s almost every city in America was blanketed by a patchwork of covenants that maintained segregated neighborhoods

In the 1940s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People launched a campaign in the courts that challenged restrictive covenants. In 1948 the Supreme Court held in Shelley v. Kraemer that restrictive covenants were private arrangements, but the judicial enforcement of discriminatory agreements involved state action that violated the Fourteenth Amendment. However, Shelley did little to eliminate neighborhood segregation.

During the 1950s and ’60s, suburban communities were developed in metropolitan regions across the nation. This was made possible by 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages insured by the federal government. A federal agency established during the 1930s promoted residential segregation through “redlining.” Communities in which African Americans resided were rated “D” and coded red. Lenders were discouraged from making loans in neighborhood that were redlined. The FHA also required restrictive covenants to maintain “neighborhood stability.” From the 1940 though the late 1960s, federal housing policies barred African-Americans from the largest, wealth-producing program in American history: single-family, suburban homes financed by federally insured mortgages.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed discrimination in real estate transactions but, in some respects, this law came too late. For decades central business districts were the nerve centers of cities. Offices, court houses, government agencies, department stores, restaurants, theaters and other places of amusement were located in central business districts. Suburbanization drained residential, social and economic activities from the central business districts. By the 1960s central business districts and surrounding residential communities rapidly declined.

This has had a devastating effect on low-income city dwellers. The location of a residence has a dramatic effect on a family’s well-being. The quality of schools, property values, exposure to crime and the quality of public services are all affected by the location in which a family resides. African American families in segregated neighborhoods are trapped in areas where schools are inferior, property values are lower and routine services such as grocery stores are scarce. The factory jobs that lured African American families to urban communities during the great migration have moved to suburban areas or disappeared altogether through a combination of globalization and deindustrialization. What is left are the ruins of what once were vibrant and thriving communities.

Many young, African Americans are angry and resentful about the lack of opportunity and upward mobility in impoverished inner city communities. There is a centuries-old association of blackness within criminality and violence. In recent years, courts have consistently authorized the police to employ race as a sign of an increased risk of criminality. Throughout the urban criminal justice system, being young, black and male has become ‘probable cause’ justifying the arrest, questioning, search and detention of millions of African-American males every year. That is what happened to Freddie Gray on that fateful day in April.

It should not be surprising that Baltimore erupted into a frenzy of violence. The real question is whether other cities will follow.

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