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"The Problem We All Live With: A Speech at HUD in the Shadow of Baltimore,"

by Sherillyn Ifill January-March 2016 issue of Poverty & Race

I want to pause and talk with you all today a little bit about the contemporary manifestation of some of the history that Richard [Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, fellow speaker] is talking about and also encourage you to make what I think are some important connections between what you have been seeing on your television over the last year as we have dealt with issues of police violence and urban unrest and also to recognize, frankly, your role, our role, my role in the problem we all live with in the segregated structure which we have come to take for granted. We have come to accept it. We have come to believe that it is simply part of the landscape.

And I suppose I want to spend a few moments talking about why we must resist this, not only because we have the Fair Housing Act and a wonderful AFFH rule and because we all believe in integration and because we have devoted our lives, most of us, to fighting against discrimination, but because as a democracy imperative, if this country is to make it, if you and I are to make it unified, we have to get our hands around this problem of segregation.

This past spring when Baltimore erupted in days of unrest in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, I did a lot of media. Some of you may have seen some of it. When I did that media, I was asked a lot of questions about Baltimore. After all, I lived in Baltimore City for 20 years. I’ve now lived in Baltimore County for five years. I have taught at University of Maryland Law School for 22 years. And, although I am a native New Yorker, I really transplanted to Baltimore and took it on as my home and raised my children there. And so people had a lot of questions for me about what they were seeing on the television screen. They wanted to know why were young people so angry, why were they throwing things at the police. Why were people burning businesses in their own neighborhoods? Will the CVS ever come back? Why is there so much tension between the police and residents of West Baltimore? Why would Freddie Gray run from the police?

All of these questions were important questions and ones I answered day in and day out, but I regarded part of my obligation during those very fevered days when so much attention was on Baltimore City to press a different set of questions, the questions that I thought were being neglected and questions that really preoccupied my thinking, questions about the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up. I wondered why the CVS was the only recognizable chain store we saw on the street, no Starbucks, no Cohen’s Optical, no PetsMart, no Chick-fil-A. Of course, all businesses are important and valuable, but it was hard for me to imagine that all the handwringing from pundits and city leaders was really about their concern for the E-Z Tobacco Mart and some of the other businesses that characterized North Avenue, where the unrest took place.

Why were the streets of West Baltimore in such dilapidated condition that Baltimore City police could take arrestees on a “rough ride” to punish them in the back of a police van? How could Freddie Gray and his siblings have been so severely lead-poisoned in housing in Baltimore in the 1990s, 70 years after the dangers of lead paint were well-known around the world? What were we to make of an education system that appears to have failed not only Freddie Gray but his parents, who by some accounts are also unable to read and write? How does a community get to be West Baltimore, where Freddie Gray grew up and allegedly sold drugs and had that fateful encounter with the police, a West Baltimore where police officers don’t live in the neighborhood, yet manage the streets in the community using a kind of merry-go-round of catch-and-release of young African-American men for low-level drug crimes? Who are these officers? Where do they live?

And so how do we account for the West Baltimore that was being projected on television every night? The secret to understanding the anger, the despair, the frustration, the demand for attention and justice that we witnessed during that unrest lies in understanding the deliberate and unrelenting creation of communities in which residents have very little chance to change their lives, communities that are deeply segregated by race, poor, lacking in transportation mobility, bereft of strong educational institutions, communities that place unimaginable strain on parents, on children, on teachers, on businesses.

You have heard Richard [Rothstein’s] presentation. You know that deeply entrenched segregation has characterized so many cities in the north. And you know that, even though I just used the passive voice, I shouldn’t, that these were deliberate acts and policies, government-sponsored policies. The landscape of the north was largely created by deliberate and intentional segregation, first through racially restrictive covenants and outright discrimination through federal housing policy, which Richard discussed, affecting both public housing and the private market, beginning in the 1930s, and really by investments, massive investments, which created the suburbs and really created the middle-class for white families.

The investment, so well-described by Richard, is one of the largest and most effective domestic investment programs of the twentieth century. And it includes not only the kind of support provided to the creation of suburban homes, but it also includes the interstate highway system and the GI bill. These investments are worth trillions of dollars in today’s economy. And they not only created segregation. They created the white middle class and did so in such a way as to suggest that the creation of the white middle class was kind of inevitable.

The GI bill, the interstate highway system, the government’s role in creating affordable housing in the suburbs was not advertised or explained as a government handout or as welfare or as affirmative action for white people. Instead, those measures were understood as appropriate and sound government policy and as what our government owed young families after the sacrifices of World War II.

Segregation was, of course, further reinforced by Supreme Court decisions in the education context, which first delayed desegregation in Brown II, the all deliberate speed decision, and by restricting regional desegregation solutions in cases like Milliken v. Bradley, which ensured that whites really could reliably flee integration by leaving the diversity of cities.

Baltimore’s history of housing segregation is well documented in books like Antero Pietila’s Not in My Neighborhood and Edward Orser’s book Blockbusting in Baltimore and by the litigation in which the Legal Defense Fund participated challenging segregated public housing in Baltimore, Thompson v. HUD.

Few realize that Baltimore played a pivotal and pioneering role in introducing residential segregation to northern cities. When the city council of Baltimore passed the first municipal ordinance requiring residential segregation in 1910, it was the talk of the nation. People from cities all over the country called the city council in Baltimore to find out “How did you do it? Send us the bill. Send us the language” and Baltimore literally taught the rest of the country about how to create municipal ordinances requiring residential segregation.

But I want to talk about what I think are two under-appreciated elements that, as you move forward, particularly in the affirmatively furthering fair housing context, I ask you to draw some attention to, and I do so because they are issues that are very current in Baltimore today because Baltimore’s history of housing segregation provides a window into one of what I think are the underappreciated elements that contributed to and reinforced housing segregation and that you somehow must attend to. And that set of decisions is decisions affecting transportation.

I have already talked about the creation of the interstate highway system, without which a suburb would not have been possible. That was a massive, massive transportation investment all over this country. And transportation decisions have too often been made to further and perpetuate segregation. They often are decisions in which policy-makers acquiesce to community resistance to desegregation or they work in concert with segregated housing policies that ultimately ensure that Blacks have few opportunities to access the services, the jobs, and amenities of well-supported and well-resourced white communities.

That is why it is so ironic that after we watched the disturbing events unfold in Baltimore earlier this year, the death of Freddie Gray, the unrest, the sad and pathetic business corridor in which the E-Z Tobacco Mart is the norm and not the CVS, it is so ironic that just weeks later, the governor of Maryland decided unilaterally to abandon the plan to build the, I admit unfortunately named, Red Line, the rail line that would run east to west in Baltimore City and that had and still has the potential to begin to unlock the rigid insularity of segregated communities, like the West Baltimore community in which Freddie Gray lived. The decision to abandon the Red Line got no ink. Many of you probably never even heard about it. This was a project that had been worked on in Baltimore City for 10 years.

I don’t know how many people here are familiar with Baltimore City. Very few of you. So Baltimore was described during the Freddie Gray unrest incessantly on CNN as a major American city. Yes, it is a major American city in that it has a baseball team and a football team and it has a sizeable population and it has a storied history, certainly has a storied civil rights history. It is the birthplace of Thurgood Marshall, tremendous culture, food, extraordinary people, a town I love very much, but it does not have something that most major American cities have. And that is a true, functioning public transportation system.

The lack of that public transportation system, like the housing decisions that Richard talked about, is really by accident. There were plans to create a functioning public transportation system in Baltimore many times. In 1966, the original railway plan for Baltimore involved a citywide subway system, much like you have in D.C. And if you actually look at the map, it kind of looks like the map of the D.C. Metro. That never happened as white communities protested and expressed their concern about what this would mean in terms of the population moving throughout the system. And so the city settled for a seven-stop rail line that goes from downtown to Johns Hopkins and back again. It is not even a circle. It just goes up and goes back.

The same thing happened in 1992, when the plan was made to create a light rail system that would go through Baltimore, up West Baltimore, and then up into Baltimore County. And there again the system was created in a way that it does not run through residential neighborhoods. It runs only through business districts and runs up into Baltimore County’s business districts. And when there is a desire to have another light rail stop, like when we finally were able to get a football team, we spent tens of millions of dollars creating a light rail stop for the stadium.

There was one community that refused to have a light rail stop, a majority white community called Ruxton, which said they did not want that element that might be on this public transportation in their community. So, if you are riding the light rail in Baltimore, the light rail will stop about every three minutes. And then suddenly it will just not stop for 15 minutes. And that is as it passes those communities that objected to having a transportation system stop in their community.

Transportation is the key in many ways to unlocking these closed-in communities like the one you saw in West Baltimore. Transportation is how people get to jobs that exist not largely in the center of Baltimore but on the edges of the community in Baltimore County and in Howard County. They allow women like the mom that everyone lionized on television, Toya Graham, who came out and snatched her son from the protest. It would allow her, living in West Baltimore, to get to Johns Hopkins in East Baltimore, which actually does have jobs. In fact, Johns Hopkins is one of the great institutions that actually hires ex-offenders as well. But if you are an ex-offender and you live in West Baltimore, your ability to get to that job at 7:00 in the morning means that you will be standing at a bus stop waiting for an hour for a bus that will meander to the city to get you there on time.

And lest that seem like it is only an inconvenience, if you drive through West Baltimore early in the morning and you watch the bus stops, you see the moms who come from public housing and from low-income housing standing at the bus stop. It is dark. They are there at 5:30 so they can get to the 7:00 shift at the hospital. And then you have to ask yourself, “Where are their children? Who will take them to school? Who will make sure that they have something to eat? Who will make sure that they have their homework?” When they arrive in school without those things, what is the reaction of the teacher? What is your reaction when you hear about the children who arrive at school without their homework and with nothing to eat?

So the decision to simply abandon a transportation system that would bring people from one end of the city to the other end of the city, that would bring people to the jobs in the county from the city, is a decision that reverberates through the lives of people in Baltimore City.

The decision that the governor made to abandon the Red Line, unless it is revisited and overturned, is one that will profoundly implicate the obligation of Baltimore City and Baltimore County to affirmatively further fair housing for many years to come.

The settlement in the Thompson v. HUD case—that is the public housing case I referred to—provides vouchers to families to move to communities of opportunity in the region. And that remains critically important. And so, by the way, if you are wondering what you can do to support transportation in Baltimore at this moment, you can allocate additional funds to that program to allow families to move to communities of opportunity. But I think we all recognize that as a corollary, our obligation is also to make every community a community of opportunity.

And so in enforcing the obligation of local governments to affirmatively further fair housing, you must pay keen attention to the role that transportation decisions have played and are continuing to play in locking in longstanding residential segregation. HUD must work hand in hand with the Department of Transportation uncovering the devastating symbiotic reinforcement of housing segregation and regressive transportation decision-making in order to give life to the AFFH but also to fully meet your obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and to ensure that federal funds do not support programs that engage in discrimination.

In the new AFFH rule, you talk about the removal of barriers that prevent people from accessing housing in areas of opportunity. You talk about access to housing outside of areas with high racial or ethnic concentration of low-income residents. How does that happen in a city like Baltimore, where many people cannot afford to own cars? It happens by transportation decisions that work hand-in-hand with a local jurisdiction’s plan to affirmatively further fair housing. And to the extent we allow these decisions to be decoupled so that these transportation decisions are made over here. And then later on, you look at Baltimore County’s plan or you look at Baltimore City’s plan. You are essentially allowing these jurisdictions to grandfather in this segregation through these unreviewed transportation decisions. And so we need these two to come together.

In addition to transportation, there has to be this critical attention to regional solutions. And you know this already. You know the importance of regional solutions to segregation. Judge Garbis in the Thompson v. HUD case talked about the way in which Baltimore was being maintained as a segregated pool for the region’s poor. And he said that that simply cannot be allowed to stand. But this was, in part, made possible by some of the transportation decisions that I described to you.

You heard Vice President Mondale this morning. You know that in 1968 in talking about the Fair Housing Act, he talked about promoting truly integrated and balanced living patterns. Those balanced living patterns cannot happen without social engineering. And here I want to push back against any negative connotation to that phrase.

So I regard myself as a descendant of Charles Hamilton Houston, the brilliant lawyer and dean of Howard Law School and mentor to Thurgood Marshall, who once said of lawyers, “If you are not a social engineer, you are a parasite.”

That is our job. Our job is to socially engineer for good. Our job is to socially engineer for opportunity. Our job is to socially engineer for equality. Those are noble goals.

And lest we think that we have a choice about whether we do this, I want to take you back to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the advocacy that my organization, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, engaged in in that case. You all if you haven’t read the decision, you know the decision. And you know that in that decision, the Supreme Court talked about the harm of segregation to African-American children. They talked about the way in which segregation sends a message to African-American children that the state regards them as inferior and that that message becomes internalized.

That may all be true, but what I want you to be clear about is that when we litigated that case and we provided our briefs and we included with our briefs an appendix signed by 30 social scientists that talked about the harm of segregation on black children, that brief also included an extensive discussion about the harm of segregation to white children. And it talked about the way in which segregation can produce confusion, moral cynicism, and a sense of dislocation among white children that can result in ways in which they rationalize the incongruity they see in their own society, the language of equality and justice that they hear in the rhetoric of the public or that they may even hear from their parents and the reality of what they see happening before them.

In that brief, the social scientist forecasted, I believe, some of what we are seeing today because at the end of the day, when you watch that awful video of Walter Scott running in that park in North Charleston and being shot by that police officer, it is not just that the police officers pull up next to Tamir Rice in Cleveland and shoot him, a 12-year-old boy. It is that when his sister begins to cry and scream “My brother, my brother,” that they tackle her to the ground and handcuff her and put her back in the back of a car. It is that they say to the screaming mother “If you don’t get quiet, I will arrest you, too.” You have to begin to wonder, “What manner of people are these? What has happened to them?”

And so it is my belief that as a democracy, as a society, we can simply no longer afford segregation. We cannot afford the distance between us that allows one to not believe in the humanity of the other.

You and I do not have the luxury of sitting back 30 years from now asking these same questions. If we are in a position of power and authority to influence one iota to lessen that distance between us, it was created by the way in which we live. It allows the othering that doesn’t see a grieving mother. And we simply can’t afford it anymore.

So in case we are watching these events unfold over the last year and we are thinking that is all about policing and it doesn’t really have to do with us, in case you are thinking, “What does HUD have to do with Freddie Gray?” it has everything to do with it. And so my hope is really to convict you and me—trust me, I do not throw stones—is to convict us as a society, as those who are the engineers, to recognize that we bear responsibility for that as well. It will not be resolved by the conviction of this or that police officer. Of course, there must be justice and accountability. But if we do not begin to take seriously the harm that segregation is doing to this society, harm that was predicted in 1954, when we submitted these briefs, then we will be here 30 years from now and 40 years from now with your grandchildren and my grandchildren and our great-grandchildren wondering, “What manner of people are these?” They are the ones we allowed to be created by not affirmatively, aggressively recognizing the role we must play in ending segregation once and for all.

Sherillyn Ifill is President and Director of NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. She delivered this article as a speech at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 National Fair Housing Training And Policy Conference, held on September 1, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

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