Why black political power isn’t enough in Baltimore

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BALTIMORE — The first trial of six police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death began last week, but the officers aren’t the only ones standing in judgment.

The city’s black political leaders are facing their own day of reckoning as well.

The death of Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose spine was virtually severed while in police custody, sparked one of the worst urban riots since the 1960s and led to the officers’ arrests.

His death also challenged a fundamental assumption that drove the civil rights movement and still reverberates in the demands of Black Lives Matter activists who press for black leadership in cities such as Ferguson.

Their assumption: Black political power can right the wrongs white leaders failed to address.

That belief propelled blacks into mayors’ offices across the nation, beginning with the 1967 election of Carl Stokes in Cleveland. Those mayors vowed to create jobs and reduce police brutality. Some such as Maynard Jackson in Atlanta and Marion Barry in Washington became virtual folk heroes, lauded for breaking the power of white big-city bosses. And majority-black cities such as Baltimore — which has a black mayor, police chief, chief prosecutor and a majority-black City Council — became bastions of black political power.

But if black political power is so important, why hasn’t it made more of a difference in the lives of poor black people in Baltimore such as Gray?

That’s because the city’s black mayors have acted like political cowards, says William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr., the attorney for Gray’s family.

They’ve been afraid to use the power of their office to insist the black community get a cut of the city’s economic pie, says Murphy, whose father was one of the city’s first black judges and whose family founded the city’s black newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, more than a century ago.

“There’s been no black power in Baltimore even though there’s the illusion of black power,” says Murphy, who once ran unsuccessfully for mayor in Baltimore. “If mayors don’t use their own power to help the black community, that’s not power.”

Baltimore’s current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, was widely criticized in the city’s black community for her handling of the protests and the subsequent riots in the wake of Gray’s death. Rawlings-Blake, who is black, recently announced she will not to run for a second term and declined to be interviewed for this article.

Kurt Schmoke, the city’s first elected black mayor, did talk. Four of the city’s past five mayors have been black. Nine of its 15 City Council members are black. The city’s population is 63% black. Still, Schmoke says, black mayoral candidates in Baltimore and elsewhere can’t run successful campaigns built on helping only black residents.

“If you look at those who have been successful in elections, we ran on platforms that tried to include people, not divide people, and tried to expand economic opportunities for all,” says Schmoke, who served three terms beginning in 1987.

“I don’t think there was a need to make confrontational demands.”

The challenges black mayors face in Baltimore and elsewhere transcend race, Schmoke and others say. They don’t fit the traditional explanations for the city’s decline, such as mass incarceration or persistent poverty. And they are barely mentioned when commentators are asked why the city’s poor black residents exploded in protests against a city and police force run primarily by blacks.

Here are three theories to explain why black political power isn’t enough to overcome such challenges in the city of Baltimore.

Theory No. 1: It’s a liberal wasteland

Baltimore is a city of grim numbers: more than 300 homicides this year, the city’s highest rate ever; about 16,000 vacant homes; and half of Maryland’s welfare recipients.

The numbers, though, don’t do justice to what it’s like to walk through the city’s poorest black neighborhoods.

People are living in squalor. There are crumbling sections of the black community that look like photographs of bombed-out German cities after World War II. There are hardly any decent sit-down restaurants in West Baltimore, where Gray was arrested. Young black men hang on dreary street corners day and night. Everything seems to be peeling away — the paint on the boarded-up row houses as well as the social fabric that once held the city together.

Race has long been central to Baltimore’s history. The city passed the nation’s first racially restrictive housing laws in 1911. And for much of the 20th century, federal housing policy prevented blacks from buying homes in certain neighborhoods in Baltimore and elsewhere.

That practice, known as “redlining,” is one form of “structural racism” — laws, practices and policies that appear race-neutral while reinforcing racial inequality.

But there’s another explanation for the struggles of Baltimore’s black political leaders that proponents say has nothing to do with race. It’s a critique that emerged in the conservative media after the riots.

Baltimore’s problem isn’t an American problem; it’s a liberal problem, says John Nolte, a commentator and editor-at-large at Breitbart News Network.

Black leaders who cite the past to excuse the present are copping out, he says.

“It boggles my mind that people are willing to blame Baltimore’s current problems on government policies from 100 years ago, but not the failed left-wing policies that have been in effect for the last five decades,” Nolte says.

Among those policies, he says, are high taxes, overregulation, expensive social programs and the portrayal of police as murderers of black men instead of treating police brutality on a case-by-case basis.

Baltimore hasn’t had a Republican mayor since 1967; it’s been run by Democratic mayors ever since. Nolte asks: Shouldn’t they take the blame by now?

“The failure of these policies in Baltimore has nothing to do with the color of the skin of those implementing them,” Nolte says. “Democrats had free rein in Baltimore for going on 50 years. Nothing has stopped them from implementing their policies. The result is a total and complete failure.”

Theory No. 2: Demographics equals destiny

Murphy, the Gray family attorney, scoffs at the notion that Baltimore has been governed by liberal policies.

“There aren’t any liberal policies,” he says. “There’s liberal talk, but no liberal policies.”

If Baltimore’s black mayors had governed like liberals, they would have followed the example of Jackson in Atlanta, he says. Murphy tells a story he likes to repeat in speeches. Some people say it’s apocryphal, but the story hits on one of Murphy’s favorite themes: black economic power.

When Jackson was first elected in 1973, the city’s white business leaders presented him with plans to expand Atlanta’s airport, Murphy says. The leaders balked, though, when Jackson demanded the expansion include a certain percentage of black contractors. Jackson threatened to withhold the distribution of Atlanta’s water to the airport if he didn’t get his way, Murphy says — adding that the threat worked. Jackson practiced the art of political patronage to create black wealth, thus solidifying Atlanta’s reputation as the Black Mecca.

Jackson only did what white mayors do when they control City Hall — use it to create economic opportunities for their constituents, Murphy says. Yet many contemporary black mayors are reluctant to do the same because they fear alienating white supporters who could potentially help them in bids for higher office.

“Everybody but black mayors understands that a deprived minority, like the Italian or Irish used to be, only advance if they use their political power to their economic advantage,” Murphy says from the high-rise office of his firm, Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Schmoke, the former mayor, has heard those stories about crusaders like Jackson. But today’s black mayors, he says, couldn’t employ racial quotas and set-aside programs to lift up the black community even if they wanted to.

“It’s illegal,” Schmoke says. “Some of the set-aside programs that were active have been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.”

He cites the 1989 Richmond v. Croson case. After the city of Richmond, Virginia, decided to award a set percentage of city construction projects to black firms, the high court ruled the city’s actions violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. The historical mistreatment of a disadvantaged group could not be used to justify “rigid” quotas for awarding public contracts, the court said.

Demographic trends also have hemmed in Baltimore’s black mayors, Schmoke says.

In 1950, Baltimore had a population around 950,000. Today, it’s about 620,000. The exodus hammered the city’s revenue. Fewer people means less money from property taxes and other fees. And less money means fewer resources for those left behind.

The exodus, Schmoke says, was propelled by the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, which accelerated suburbanization. It was also driven by race. Whites began leaving Baltimore and other American cities in droves after public schools were desegregated during the 1960s and urban riots that erupted in the late 1960s.

“It’s not just white flight; it was middle-class flight,” Schmoke says. “All that tax base is gone.”

The city’s population decline also led to a loss of mayoral clout, says Marion Orr, an urban studies professor at Brown University who once served as a consultant to Baltimore’s school board.

As its population fell, so did the city’s representation at the state assembly. State delegates don’t pay as much attention to Baltimore today because so many of their constituents live elsewhere. A black mayor can speak up for the city’s black community, but no one may be listening, says Orr, author of “Black Social Capital: The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore.”

“As the power shifts from the city to the rural and suburban areas,” he says, “the city’s voice in state politics weakens.”

When he was mayor, Schmoke says, the chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee and the majority leader in the state Senate were both from Baltimore.

“That was a huge benefit,” Schmoke says. “They could get in the rooms with the governors and the other legislators and negotiate on our behalf. They could affect where the state’s budget money went.”

With a loss of people, money and clout, some say, the city’s political leadership was in a poor position to face the modern-day scourge that devastated Baltimore’s poor black community: the violence induced by crack cocaine that swept the city in the 1980s.

Rather than governing from the left as conservatives such as Nolte argue, Baltimore’s Democratic leadership actually made things worse by taking a page from Republicans’ playbook, says New Republic writer Rebecca Leber.

“Democrats exacerbated these problems not by embracing the policies of the left.

“Rather, they dug the hole deeper by yawing to the right,” Leber wrote earlier this year in an article entitled, “Liberal Policies Didn’t Fail Baltimore. Here’s What Did.”

“Aggressive policing, tougher drug sentencing, slashing the budgets of school and public housing and parks — throughout Baltimore’s history, lawmakers at the local, state, and federal level adopted policies that entrenched poverty and segregation in the city.”

Theory No. 3: Corporate power beats black power

There’s one part of Baltimore, though, that’s doing just fine today. It’s the city’s tourist hot spot, the Inner Harbor.

Once a bleak stretch of docks occupied by wharf rats and ringed by sleazy hotels, the Inner Harbor now offers grand sports stadiums, fashionable restaurants, luxury hotels and a national aquarium.

The Inner Harbor is only about a 10-minute drive from Gray’s Sandtown neighborhood. A person could stand on a hill near where Gray was arrested and not only peer down into the Inner Harbor but spot massive tankers in the distance heading out to sea on Chesapeake Bay.

But the Inner Harbor might as well be Mars for many of the city’s poorest black residents, says Orr, because they get little economic benefit from its existence.

Most of the jobs generated by the Inner Harbor are “poverty-level jobs,” the Brown professor says.

“They’re not really living-wage jobs,” Orr says. “There’s no longer a Bethlehem Steel here to provide good, living-wage jobs for young people who finish high school but don’t go onto college. That’s something that a mayor has very little control over.”

It’s not just the loss of blue-collar jobs that hurts Baltimore’s black community. It’s the arrival of what Orr calls “mobile capital” — contemporary multinational corporations that bring jobs to cities such as Baltimore but make no pretense of loyalty to any city.

Baltimore residents know what it’s like to be abandoned. Many still remember the sting of betrayal they felt when local television cameras caught the NFL’s Baltimore Colts departing for Indianapolis in the middle of the night in Mayflower moving vans despite the Colts’ owners’ vows to never move the beloved team.

Big businesses come and go as they please now in cities such as Baltimore. A black mayor can promise to bring jobs to the black community, Orr says, but he or she really has little sway over these huge companies.

“If you’re running for the mayor of a city, you can’t say that,” Orr says. “You’re going to have to say, ‘I can bring jobs.’ You want people to come out and vote for you.”

Schmoke recalls how helpless he felt when confronted with the mobility of modern business. When he became mayor in 1987, nine large banks were headquartered in Baltimore. By the time he left office in 1999, all had either become branches of another major bank or relocated to other U.S. cities or overseas.

“You can’t stop that,” Schmoke says. “There are some things you can control. You can provide tax incentives. But if a corporation is talking about moving out of the country for federal tax purposes, a local mayor can’t stop that.”

The mayor of Baltimore also has little control when it comes to expanding the city’s boundaries to stem white and middle class flight, Schmoke says. Some American cities coped with the exodus of city dwellers by annexing surrounding counties. They kept their tax bases healthy simply by adding more taxpayers.

The mayor of Baltimore can’t do the same, Schmoke says. There’s a provision in the state constitution that says a city can only annex a county if it receives approval from city and county voters. The possibility of suburban residents agreeing to become part of Baltimore today is remote, Schmoke says.

“You can imagine the county’s residents don’t want to be annexed into the city,” Schmoke says. “If the city could have just reached out and expanded its boundaries by attaching itself to those who have moved out, we would have a larger tax base and we would have been able to address a lot of these social issues.”

If the city can’t expand, it has to get better. And now several mayoral candidates are saying they’re going to make that happen.

So far, at least 18 people have announced they’re running in the November 2016 election. The early front-runner is the city’s third black mayor, Sheila Dixon, who resigned in 2010 after she was convicted of stealing gift cards meant for the city’s poor residents.

One intriguing candidate is Nick Mosby. He is the council member from the West Baltimore community where riots erupted this year — and the husband of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who is leading the prosecution of the six officers charged in Gray’s death.

Mosby says he has first-hand experience with the world Gray navigated. He grew up in inner-city East Baltimore, was raised by a single mother and was the first one in his family to graduate from college.

He says the city’s mayor still holds plenty of power. Baltimore has a $3.2 billion annual budget, and a mayor can decide what issues he or she is going to tackle the hardest, he says. A mayor can change the socio-economic trajectory of poor black neighborhoods by making them a priority, he says.

“Urban decay is as American as apple pie,” he says. “It’s not a Baltimore problem. It’s an American problem.”

Mosby may be right.

What’s happening in Baltimore is now spreading to white working-class communities nationwide, according to a recent study. An epidemic of drug abuse and despair has hit white middle-age Americans who have less education, according to a new study co-authored by Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton. Some say more working-class whites are dying younger because they are pessimistic about their economic future.

For now, Baltimore is focusing on the present.

The six police officers face charges ranging from official misconduct to second-degree murder with a depraved heart. Three of the officers are black, three white. All have pleaded not guilty. Their trials, which are being held separately and consecutively, could extend into next April — the one-year anniversary of Gray’s death.

There are questions, though, that lurk in the background of Gray’s case: Will a new mayor mark a new direction for Baltimore? Can the city stop being a symbol of black urban dysfunction? Or will the city’s black neighborhoods continue their long slide into decay, no matter how many black mayors are elected?

Those are questions no trial can answer.

Story by John Blake, CNN Video by Meridith Edwards and Effie Nidam