White Flight from Baltimore.

Racism is widely deprecated. People of virtually all political stripes decry racism. Some Democrats deploy accusations of racism against their opponents in the sort of public shaming campaigns that other Democrats deplore when applied to other cases. However, one truth not much acknowledged in politics, the media, or scholarship is that—under most circumstances—racism isn’t illegal.[1]

The city of Baltimore offers an example of this inconvenient truth. After the Second World War, the other City by the Bay lost population, jobs, and the economic base needed to make the place run effectively. One important part of the problem arose from accelerating “white flight” from the city to the suburbs. Between 1950 and 1960, Baltimore’s population fell from 950,000 people to 939,000 people. From 1960 to 1970, Baltimore’s population fell from 939,000 people to 906,000 people. So, from 1950 to 1970 Baltimore lost 4.6 percent of its population.

Then came the riots of April 1968. Over a thousand businesses were looted, damaged, or burned down. The damage totaled about $79 million in today’s dollars. Virtually all of the businesses were owned by whites. One activist later reflected that “the riots really weren’t personal: They were against the system, not individual white people. There was only property loss.” However, property belongs to individuals. White flight accelerated, businessmen took their insurance money and moved to suburban locations, and landlords backed even farther off from maintaining property in a city where two-thirds of African-Americans rent their homes.

To make matters worse, Baltimore’s economic base declined. The Bethlehem Steel Company’s Sparrows Point complex of steel mill and shipyard provided high-wage jobs to a huge number of people in the area. During the 1970s and 1980s, Bethlehem Steel encountered all sorts of problems that it failed to master. Repeated rounds of retrenchment led to huge losses of jobs. Moreover, both the steel mill and the shipyard formed the center of networks of local suppliers of goods and services. Job losses at Sparrows Point rippled outward through the community. The decline of Sparrows Point and the attendant job loss cost the city an ever-growing amount of revenue.[2] From 1970 to 1980, Baltimore’s population fell from 906,000 people to 787,000 people. Decline continued until it reached 651,000 people in 2000. All told, Baltimore’s population fell by 28 percent between 1970 and 2000. Most the emigrants were whites. As a result, the “non-white” population in Baltimore rose from 24 percent in 1950 to 44 percent in 1970 to 65 percent by 2000.[3]

If 76 percent of the Baltimore’s population was white in 1950, that would mean that about 725,000 white people lived in the city. By 2000, whites constituted 35 percent of the population. That would amount to about 228,000 people. Almost half a million whites left the city. Property taxes pay for schools; business and operations taxes and licensing fees pay for city government functions like police and fire departments, and trash collection.

If the population was 950,000 in 1950 and half a million people left, then the city’s population should be about 450,000 people. However, the city’s 2000 population was actually 651,000 people. In all likelihood, the extra 200,000 people were African-Americans from farther South who moved North in hopes of finding greater opportunity. Need grew as resources shrank. Bitter must be their tears.

[1] Some racist actions are illegal. Racist belief, however, is not illegal and many racist actions are not illegal.

[2] See Mark Reutter, Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might (2005).

[3] http://www.baltimoremagazine.net/2007/5/1/100-years-the-riots-of-1968?p=2007/5/100-years-the-riots-of-1968

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