After the unrest in April and subsequent uprising, many have turned their attention to how we can improve our city. How do we attract and retain city residents? What do we do now after the press (negative and positive) our city has received surrounding the death of Freddie Grey? Of course, that attention will be ongoing as the trials start and we learn more about the case; there will, in fact, be multiple opportunities for protest and perhaps more unrest. There will, of course, be more discussion in the media of our city’s problems as CNN, Fox, MSNBC and others provide “gavel to gavel” coverage of the trial.
Many here are trying to shift the conversation from unrest to healing Baltimore’s racial past. This means educating the public that these problems are complex, structural and have roots that go back generations. At the University of Baltimore, we are smack in the middle of a new community course called “Divided Baltimore: How did we get here? Where did we go?” The course, organized by our Provost Joseph Wood, is offered as part of the College of Public Affairs’ Community Studies and Civic Engagement degree, but is taught by faculty from across the university and by members of our community. In addition to the portions of the course for enrolled students, there is a community forum portion of the class that is open to the public each Monday evening at 5:30 p.m. in the Town Hall of UB’s H. Mebane Turner Learning Commons (1415 Maryland Avenue, Baltimore). The course includes community leaders addressing important topics, such as how the media looks at our city, the role of churches and community leaders, education, health, housing, and crime. Upcoming topics and meetings of this forum including an archive of past talks can be found at Blogs.ubalt.edu/dividedbaltimore
Among the many things discussed is that the racial and ethnic divisions that we see block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood, are structural and based on discriminatory laws and norms developed long ago. The place you start often foretells what the journey will be like and even where you finish. On Baltimore’s racial struggle, it is very much worth reading Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City by Antero Pietila, which details how Baltimore became racially divided. The idea of the book is that segregationist laws and policies such as redlining and blockbusting, created an economic, social, and political starting place that has shaped where we are now.
The idea that where you start tends to shape the journey is important to the changing legal, political environment of power shaping the struggle for rights in the LGBTQIA community. What is taught in “Divided Baltimore” and what is written by Pietila can be applied to many social movements. It is of note that scholars tell us of the deep discriminatory legal environment that has been faced by the LGBTQIA community which has only in a generation changed from culture of illegality of being different to the legality of same-sex marriage. What we are learning now, and have learned from the past, is that the remarkable change we have seen like legal protections against discrimination are powerful. However, legal change is not enough. The legacy of those laws has informed and shaped an environment of culture and attitudes that are still slower to change. Like the block by block segregation we see in Baltimore, change from legal attitudes to norms takes much effort. As we see the legacy of what discrimination in housing did to our city, and reflect on Freddie Gray, we must also look back and consider what the legacy of discrimination has done to the economic and social health of the LGBTQIA community. Newer laws, like granting legality of same-sex marriage and advances in anti-discrimination law are powerful, but much must be done to repair past harm. There is a need, as in racial discrimination, to teach about what laws and norms were like not so long ago and about the legacy of harm that follows from them. Just like in the course, “Divided Baltimore,” to make progress people have to understand the roots of a social movement and its barriers, understand the journey, and then change attitudes and culture. Achieving legal rights gives you a place to stand and fight, but as we can see in Baltimore, the path forward means a lot of teaching and learning.
The author is the University of Baltimore’s dean at the College of Public Affairs.