Opinion

Blame ‘Progressive Reformers’ And Politicians For Ruining Baltimore

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

My essay the other day (about my dad’s experience during the 1968 riots) leads us to the sad conclusion that not much has changed in the last 50 years. Over at Slate, Jamelle Bouie’s latest thought-provoking piece argues that Baltimore’s lingering problems are actually 100 years in the making. Some of the conclusions his piece led me to were probably unintended. Still, a good column, like a song or book, can sometimes spark unique ideas and interpretations.

Let’s begin with the fact that a lot of these problems are deep-seated. I stand by my contention that the city of Baltimore utterly mishandled the riots, allowing things to get out of control. Whether this is an example of liberal permissiveness or merely incompetence (or both) is a secondary issue, since this is a symptom of a larger problem. So what are the fundamental problems? Sometimes it helps to discover what the fundamental problems are not. And it turns out that simply hiring more black police officers and having more African-American representation in leadership positions isn’t a panacea.

As Bouie notes, “unlike Ferguson, where demographic strength lagged political representation, Baltimore’s black residents have turned their presence into black mayors, black city councils, and black representatives to Annapolis. Far from a rarity, black leadership in Baltimore is a given that even extends to the police.” (And yet, despite all of this, as Jim Antle observes, “Yet there are still widespread allegations of police brutality against Baltimore residents, especially blacks, of which Gray’s suspicious death in police custody is merely the latest high-profile example.”)

So why has Baltimore been a mess for the last century, or so? This, I think, is Bouie’s nut graph:

 In the early 20th century—as in many American cities—Baltimore civic leaders endorsed broad plans to “protect white neighborhoods” from black newcomers. The city was flush with waves of immigration—from abroad as well as the South—and more affluent blacks were leaving the older, poorer neighborhoods to move to predominantly white areas removed from the poverty and joblessness of the crowded slums. In short order, politicians and progressive reformers—motivated by benevolence, politics, and an en vogue scientific racism—endorsed segregation plans and racial covenants meant to cordon blacks—as well as Italian and Eastern European immigrants—on to small parts of land in the inner city.

If slavery was America’s original sin (and I believe it was), then segregation was its demonic offspring. America is a great country, but when it comes to this issue, the sins of the fathers continue to be revisited upon us. On a more philosophical level, we see this every time someone who supports religious liberty or federalism loses a debate because “that’s the same thing Jim Crow proponents said!,” and, on a more tangible level, we see it in the burning embers of Charm City. (This is not to excuse the violence, looting, and destruction. Individuals who commit these acts are making a choice, and deserve the consequences that follow. But at the macro level, it is important to understand why these things happen.)

Conservatives should find it interesting, if not surprising, that these systemic problems are the fruits of — as Bouie writes — “progressive reformers—motivated by benevolence, politics, and an en vogue scientific racism.” It makes a certain amount of logical sense that same people who would later push eugenics and abortion might also support segregation.

But why has this problem lingered for decades? We are left without an answer as to why the numerous liberal Democrats elected in Baltimore and the state of Maryland haven’t been able to fix things. We are only told that doing so “requires major investment and major reform from state and federal government. It requires patience, investment, and a national commitment to ending scourges of generational poverty—not just ameliorating them.”

This sounds like we still don’t have a real answer.