In April of 2015, the streets of Baltimore appeared on the front page of newspapers and other media outlets around the world. The death of an unarmed, Black young man, Freddie Gray, had sparked weeks of peaceful protest in Gilmor Homes, the public housing complex where he lived, and in his neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. Thousands of people took to the streets to voice their frustration and anger with policing practices.
In the more than six months since the Baltimore Uprising, three important community and economic development trends have accelerated or gained prominence in the public discussion within the region: an explicit discussion of structural inequalities, specifically structural racism; an expanded public dialogue around “security”; and a heightened focus on equitable local and regional economies.
Here are some examples of these three trends:
Structural racism, as the term implies, is not about individuals, but the structure of American society. It is how many societal institutions work as they were designed to work, and together these institutions create different outcomes based on race.
The life of Freddie Gray is one of too many examples of what structural racism is and how it impacts Black lives from birth to death. Gray lived in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore City. According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Health Profile, a male child born in Sandtown-Winchester has a life expectancy of only 65 years—more than 10 years less than the average for the city. At an early age, Gray was exposed to lead paint poisoning in his home. Sandtown-Winchester has four times the number of lead paint violations than the city average, leading to direct physical and cognitive impacts. Gray experienced academic challenges throughout school and, like many Black youth, found few opportunities for work. Sandtown-Winchester has at least two times the unemployment rate of the rest of the city.
Gray also lived in Gilmor Homes, a public housing complex that is heavily policed, in a community that has more residents in state prison facilities than any other neighborhood in the state. The relationships between residential segregation, substandard housing, health outcomes, schools, jobs, and policing were interwoven in Gray’s life. His life and tragic death are examples of the effects of structural racism.
Structural racism directly affects the lives of Black people throughout Baltimore City, the state of Maryland, and the United States. The realities of structural racism sparked an uprising in Baltimore and around the country. Structural racism devalues the lives of Black people and other people of color. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is the naming, centering, and pushing public dialogue to address the many physical, economic, and social ways that structural racism kills, harms, and threatens the lives of Black people and their communities.
In September, leaders of Baltimore’s business, philanthropic, and religious communities produced an advertising campaign calling for sustained public dialogue about structural racism in Baltimore City. Organizations throughout the city, many led by young people, have continued to lead collective actions that focus attention on structural racism, from school closures to policing practices. This work is many decades old and builds upon a racial justice tradition that is centuries-old in Baltimore. Currently, the public conversation throughout the city is accelerating.
The Baltimore Uprising focused attention once again on state violence—the blunt and lethal force of police practices. Policing continues to raise important questions about whose safety and security is protected by the state. In addition, Baltimore communities and a range of activists are elevating the reality that safety and security also require understanding the many ways that Black lives and Black communities are threatened every day.
Many Baltimore organizations and communities are coming together, starting new conversations, and continuing longstanding dialogues to talk about what safety and security mean for individuals and communities. These dialogues are based on a growing collective understanding that individual and community safety and security depend upon providing for basic human needs—food, water, and shelter.
This understanding of security draws connections between experiences of physical violence and economic violence. It links the threat of police violence while walking down the streets of Sandtown-Winchester with the fear of living in a home poisoned with lead paint; and with the insecurity of having no work, sporadic work, or work that pays wages that do not sustain a family.
These dialogues connecting physical and economic security have been underway for many years throughout the city, and they are gaining momentum now. From grassroots coalitions to collaborations between city government and local leaders in philanthropy, labor, and civic life, these efforts connect economic security—jobs for Baltimore youth and adults— to the security of the city. Local colleges and universities have created courses connecting students with community-based organizations to imagine how students and educational institutions can create a more equitable and just Baltimore.
Racial equity and human rights frame some of these conversations, in which state violence means not just police killings, but also systemic disinvestment, discrimination, neglect, and exclusion from the economy. These conversations and collective actions recognize that we can only combat structural inequalities with structural solutions that transform the many societal institutions which limit safety and security for individuals, families, and communities.
At the heart of physical and economic security is the ability to care for and protect one’s self and community. Community-based organizations, technical assistance providers, democratic economic institutions, and a range of residents are having conversations, building coalitions, and thinking together about a better Baltimore with physical and economic security for all.
Central to these conversations has been the urgent need to build and grow opportunities for meaningful work and economic self-determination in places like Sandtown-Winchester. This means dialogue on structural racism that leads to a holistic understanding of safety and security and concrete policies and actions to reimagine and create equitable local and regional political economies.
Presently, community activists are demanding funds to support youth-led job creation, expand workforce development programs, and halt school closures, as well as addressing complaints regarding Baltimore City Housing Authority’s treatment of public housing residents. In addition to these demands, residents are building their own connections and making economic self-determination real. Some examples include new and strengthened networks between existing organizations to focus their human and financial resources, new possibilities of financial capital to support democratically run businesses and organizations, and technical assistance providers collaborating to support those who are running and building democratic economic institutions. The connections between all of these demands and organized actions are the calls for a different kind of political economy that truly values the lives of all city residents, particularly Black lives.
Baltimore communities, organizations, and leaders are reimagining their assets and connections to one another—and possibilities of social, economic, and political transformation. Our only hope for a city, region, and nation that value Black lives and Black communities is a sustained dialogue combined with the political will to create political economies that directly combat the history and present realities of structural racism.
Dorcas R. Gilmore wrote this article for New Economy Week, a collaboration between the New Economy Coalition and YES! Magazine. Dorcas is an attorney and consultant focused on race, economic equity, and community-led development. She is a co-founder of Baltimore Activating Solidarity Economies, principal of Gilmore Khandhar, LLC, and a practitioner in residence in the Community & Economic Development Law Clinic at American University Washington College of Law.