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April 22, 2024

Was Baltimore the proving ground for redlining?

Baltimoreans know their city as a culturally diverse, predominantly working-class community that prides itself on its love for seafood, sports, and its significance throughout United States history. The legacy of those like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, two forces championing the civil rights and freedom of all people, are forever intertwined with Baltimore and serve as a marker for our presence in the minds of Americans nationwide. 

However, it is important to acknowledge that Baltimore’s history also includes practices that went against the ideals of Douglass and Tubman—policies birthed here that negatively impacted generations of minority communities in the city and nationwide. Baltimore activists are especially aware of this, deeming Baltimore to be a “Tale of Two Cities.” One’s experience living in Baltimore varies widely depending on various socioeconomic factors—many of which can be connected to redlining, which has plagued our city for decades.

What is redlining?

The term “redlining” has come to mean racial discrimination of any kind in housing, but it originally came from government maps that outlined areas where Black residents lived and therefore were deemed risky investments. It is said that in Baltimore in 1911, a Black Yale graduate purchased a home in a predominately all-white neighborhood, and the Baltimore City government responded by adopting a residential segregation ordinance, limiting Black residents to only live in newly designated areas.

Barry Mahool, the Mayor of Baltimore at the time, had this to say about the ordinance’s enactment: “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.” 

redlining in baltimore

The history of redlining

Redlining is an especially sensitive topic here in Maryland. Ordinance 610, Baltimore’s first piece of legislation defining this housing discrimination, has retroactively been seen as the first example of redlining. Though not coined as a term until sociologist John McKnight in the 1960s, redlining in Baltimore served as an outline for states nationwide to adopt similar practices throughout the 1930s and on. Mayor Mahool, his many successors, and those trying to pass similar ordinances in other states made it clear that redlining was a purposeful initiative made to oppress Black citizens by keeping them isolated in predefined communities, destroying the potential property values of where they were made to live. In many ways, redlining was another way of enforcing segregation throughout cities. 

Amidst the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to bring economic relief to millions of Americans through a collection of federal programs and projects called the “New Deal.” This came with the enactment of the National Housing Act of 1934, which aimed to make mortgages more accessible and affordable to lower-income individuals. It is also known as the birthplace of the 30-year mortgage. 

Making the housing market more accessible to exponentially more people forced the US government to determine a method to gauge the risk level of awarding mortgages. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation was tasked with creating residential security maps that would help banks determine where and to whom it was safest to award loans. Areas that were colored in “green” or “blue” generally consisted of businessmen and white-collar families, residents that were considered safe to loan to. “Yellow” or “red” (hence the term redlining) areas were generally comprised of working-class people, low-class whites, foreigners, and Black people, and were deemed riskier, unsafe investments for home loans. 

baltimore city hallPhoto by Styves Exantus

The modern-day consequences of redlining in Baltimore

Despite redlining seemingly ending with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1986, its repeal did very little to revert the inequalities created. The U.S. government did nothing to allocate funds or heighten the property values of the previously neglected Black communities, or even help equalize them to their White counterparts. White communities continued to benefit from decades of previous investments, accruing more and more wealth, while Black communities continued to be deprived.

A “Tale of Two Cities,” or Baltimore as a divided city, is a phenomenon that Morgan State University professor Dr. Lawrence Brown described as the “Black Butterfly” and “White L.” White neighborhoods, usually placed in close proximity to well-funded cultural institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, geographically form an “L” shape throughout the city. This proximity to resources helped specific neighborhoods accumulate structural advantages. Predominantly Black neighborhoods, on the other hand, form the shape of a butterfly’s wings on either side of the “White L,” and lack these structural advantages.

Individuals living in historically redlined areas are much more likely to be severely impacted by a host of economic disparities relating but not limited to environmental health hazards, police brutality, and access to public and free transit. In Baltimore, for example, Black citizens died at a disproportionately higher rate throughout the Covid-19 pandemic compared to white residents. The murder of Freddie Gray in 2015 served as yet another example of over-policing among historically redlined areas. And Baltimore’s free Charm City Circulator shuttles only travel through areas concentrated within the “White L”, forcing those in the “Black Butterfly” to find other means of travel or pay for public transportation.

redlining map in baltimore

Correlation does not equal causation

It is undeniable that the consequences of racist and discriminatory practices such as redlining have prevented millions of people from marginalized communities from having or attaining the same privileges as those raised in more affluent areas. Statistics such as median household income, unemployment rate, and incarceration rate illustrate the impact of these disadvantages.

However, correlation does not equal causation. When considering these statistics, we must also analyze the impact of historically racist and discriminatory practices and how they affect those communities today. Despite the Fair Housing Act being enacted in 1986, it did very little to revert the inequalities created by redlining. People in historically redlined areas, like in Baltimore, are still more likely to live below the poverty line and more likely to end up being incarcerated, while areas that have historically been marked as “green” or “blue” continue to reap the socio-economic benefits of their communities never having been disrupted.

If we look at statistics like median household income, unemployment rate, and incarceration rate without the context of redlining, our findings would likely be clouded with bias and prejudice, boxing in minority communities to play into stereotypes.

Baltimore may have been the birthplace of redlining, but it doesn’t mean cities across the US also don’t experience the generational effects of its impact. There are also people and organizations working to lessen these gaps in Baltimore and similar cities. Reading Partners works to shed light on the racist and anti-Black policies that have penetrated our education system, and give students equitable learning opportunities so that they are able to succeed in spite of deeply ingrained educational obstacles. If you’re ready to join our mission, sign up to volunteer now.

Banner image: Photo by Lavdrim Mustafi

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