President Trump’s caustic tweets about Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and his home city of Baltimore were not only factually incorrect and racist, but they also ignore a glaring reality: even if African American neighborhoods in Baltimore were in the horrific condition that Trump described, the cause would be more than a century of racist policies, not a lack of focus from the local black congressman. Nowhere is this clearer than in housing policies that have left our cities deeply segregated and inequitable.
Baltimore has been plagued by racist housing policies and their legacy for more than a century. From a law that prohibited whites from living on majority African American blocks and African Americans from living on majority white blocks (a practice later ruled illegal by the Supreme Court), to racially restrictive covenants, to federally-backed mortgage lending practices that hindered black wealth-building, to the destruction caused by urban renewal and highway construction that literally paved over or cleaved in two minority neighborhoods, housing segregation in Baltimore, as in countless other cities, has been the result of public policies and industry customs that limited options for African Americans, jacked up prices for substandard accommodations and discouraged investment in African American neighborhoods.
Even when segregation in housing was officially outlawed, countless other policies — invisible to most white Americans — enabled or ensured that segregated housing would continue, with devastating effects.
Nowhere was this clearer than in Baltimore’s public housing projects. Officials declared these housing projects desegregated in 1954. The reality was quite different from this public pronouncement, however. The housing authority removed the projects’ formal racial designations — but took no steps to put into place any policies or processes that would encourage residents to move or facilitate breaking down racial barriers for residents. For black residents, moving into all-white housing projects was actively dangerous — black Baltimoreans trying to cross the color line had for years faced threats of physical violence. When no black residents were willing to put their families in such harm’s way, housing officials declared that the black residents were choosing to remain segregated.
More than a decade later, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs called Baltimore’s policy into question, pointing out that three of the housing projects within the city’s majority-black public housing program had 100 percent white occupancy. The housing authority responded that “no non-white family has asked” to move into those projects, ignoring the violent reality that took away their choices.
Black public housing residents had reason to be afraid. When a letter went out announcing that the housing authority would finally take affirmative steps to desegregate Baltimore’s remaining all-white housing projects in 1966, one copy was returned emblazoned with a swastika and the threatening words “WE ARE READY.” Protesters against desegregation distributed flyers denigrating the future black residents as thieves, murderers and rapists. When the first black residents moved into the Brooklyn Homes project in south Baltimore, the Ku Klux Klan rallied for three days outside the home of Shirley Rivers, a black single mother who lived in the project with her three preschool-aged children
Despite the belated efforts to move some black residents into Baltimore’s formerly all-white housing projects, three projects remained overwhelmingly white through the 1980s.
To distract from the root of the housing problem, Baltimore officials also justified maintaining these three public housing projects as nearly all-white well after white flight to the suburbs left the city with a majority African-American population. Officials actively conspired to maintain these projects as majority white in part to shore up the system-wide appearance of desegregation. Baltimore’s housing officials feared that forcing white residents into integrated projects would cause wholesale abandonment of the city’s public housing by whites, further increasing the racialized stigma against public housing and its residents.