Baltimore: Can it ever recover?

BaltimoreThe atmosphere of protest that boiled over into full-scale riots in Baltimore this week is a direct result of frustration and hopelessness in a city that has been losing jobs and economic power for decades.

The unemployment rate in Baltimore is at 8.4 percent, well above the 5.5 percent national rate, with the poverty rate at a staggering 23.8 percent, also well above the national 14.5 percent poverty rate, according to data from the Census Bureau.

The median household income in Baltimore is $41,385, 78 percent of the median household income nationwide, $53.046.

Baltimore, among major American cities, isn’t alone in its economic issues. Philadelphia has a 26.5 poverty rate and median income just over $37,000; Cleveland has a 35.4 percent poverty rate and median household income at $26,217; Detroit’s poverty rate is 39.3 percent, and median household income is $26,325.

But what’s different about these Rust Belt cities from, say, New York (20.3 percent poverty rate, $52,259 median household income), Chicago (14.1 percent poverty rate, $56,797 median household income), Boston (21.4 percent poverty rate, $53.601 median household income)?

Put another way: why are some winners and some losers?

Activists on the streets of Baltimore, in between railing against the news media for its coverage and pontificating on the definition of the word thug, are assigning blame to a mythical other, which we are left to presume includes big business, industry, political elites.

With nearly two-thirds of Baltimore’s population African-American, and the flashpoint of the moment being the death of a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, in the back of a police van, apparently at the hands of police, though the exact circumstances surrounding his death are unclear at this writing, left unsaid in the activists’ rantings is who they really want to blame.

Whitey.

White America has left Black America in the economic cold. And if the Baltimores of the world are ever going to get back on their feet, it’s going to be because White America has been shamed into it.

The problem in Baltimore is that it’s hard to say that the economic issues there are White America’s fault. Nine of the 15 members of Baltimore City Council are black. The mayor is black; the police chief is black, as is 48 percent of the police force.

Framing the story of Baltimore, then, as one in which the white power structure is oppressing minorities is not lazy reporting, it’s an outright and knowingly-retold fabrication.

To be sure, turning around a decades-old economic trend is anything but easy. They don’t call it the Rust Belt for nothing; cities in the Northeast have faced a new economic reality dating back to the 1950s and 1960s as industry moved south, west and eventually overseas.

Cities in the Northeast have at the same time had to deal with coinciding white flight, with middle-class and upper-middle-class whites leaving cities for nearby suburbs beginning in the 1960s, taking their property-tax dollars with them.

Leaders in the cities, then, have had to work through losing industrial jobs and losing a significant portion of their tax base, a double-whammy of all double-whammies when it comes to a municipal bottom line.

Some have done OK in dealing with their challenges. New York and Chicago, with some natural advantages, being hubs of national and international commerce and finance, are better-positioned than most, though both went through long dry spells before getting things turned around on the macroeconomic level, and Chicago is certainly far from being done getting things figured out with its recent drug-related crime wave gripping wide swaths of that city.

The credit, or blame, depending on the situation, goes to local officials, local leaders, your mayors, your city-council members, your school-board members. Building a city economy isn’t something that comes from the outside. The president can’t wave a magic wand and make everything better in Baltimore. Congress can appropriate as many millions and billions to rebuilding as it wants, and Congress loves throwing money at problems, but it would do little and likely no good.

Baltimore, specifically, and other cities in trouble need to focus on solutions, rather than blaming the unseen other. Invest in and prioritize public education, to prepare today’s youth for college or give them a technical education that gives them marketable trade skills. Improve public infrastructure to make life better for your citizens and to attract investment from business and industry.

An educated, skilled workforce in a city with proper infrastructure, with signs at the city limits proclaiming that you are open for business will attract business, will attract industry, will provide jobs for its citizens, will provide hope for its young people.

This isn’t some mantra prepared by your local Chamber of Commerce. Malcolm X, quoted by activists marching the streets for his promise to seek and realize racial equality “by any means necessary,” preached economic self-determination as a central tenet of his empowerment philosophy.

From a 1964 Malcolm X speech:

“The black man himself has to be made aware of the importance of going into business. And once you and I go into business, we own and operate at least the businesses in our community. What we will be doing is developing a situation, wherein, we will actually be able to create employment for the people in the community. And once you can create some employment in the community where you live, it will eliminate the necessity of you and me having to act ignorantly and disgracefully, boycotting and picketing some cracker someplace else trying to beg him for a job.”

You build from within.

Local leaders invest in schools and infrastructure, and work to attract new business.

Families put a value on education as their plan to better themselves and put themselves in position to participate in the economy.

It doesn’t happen overnight, unfortunately, but neither does a city become hopeless overnight.

The ugly scene that Baltimore witnessed Monday and over the past few weeks doesn’t have to be an end, but it’s on Baltimore to make it something that the city can build from.

– Column by Chris Graham

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