From Freddie Gray to closing schools, structural racism is revealed in city policies
Freddie Gray is now a household name. Gray died on April 19, 2015 at the hands of the police, which set off a firestorm of protests in Baltimore. Protests were focused on ensuring that the police officers involved in his case were brought to justice, but were also a direct response to the conditions under which Gray lived.
Freddie Gray’s life was spent in Sandtown-Winchester, a West Baltimore neighborhood that has the highest incarceration rate in the state of Maryland. Over 47% of its children live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is 22.7%. It is a neighborhood that has faced economic devastation. Freddie Gray’s death was horrific and unjust, but also revealed a much larger problem than just police brutality. It exposed a system of structural inequality so deep that it will not go away with the imprisonment of the police officers charged in Gray’s case.
Structural inequality is built into the fabric of Sandtown-Winchester. It is a neighborhood that has faced divestment for years in the city of Baltimore from housing segregation to deindustrialization. The neighborhood has been left racially and economically isolated, without life. While there has been private investment in the neighborhood, to the tune of $130 million in public and private funds to rebuild the housing stock, the same kind of investment was not made in the economy and into jobs. This has left Sandtown-Winchester in the same place, without economic opportunity.
Rather than invest in turning around the depressed neighborhood, the city has focused on economic development in more affluent areas of the city. Hoping to attract new residents to downtown, and other gentrifying sections of Baltimore, the city has given tax breaks to developers and poured resources into luring middle class people into city living. While it attracts residents, it wants to keep taxes low and to do that has decided to turn to privatization. The city recently made plans to privatize its public housing, calling it an opportunity for Baltimore residents. The mayor and other public officials tried to convince residents that this approach would enable the cash-strapped city a chance at public dollars to rehabilitate its old buildings. The city tried the same tactic with its water, trying to privatize it, but Baltimore residents saw through the scheme and demonstrated until the city abandoned its plans.
Despite this win, the city has been successful in moving forward with its privatization plans and its plans to cater to new residents of Baltimore. For example, a planned charter expansion is moving forward which, many believe, are more attractive to middle class families than traditional public schools. Charter schools can be innovative, but are also not accountable to the communities in the same way that public schools are. Many are run by private operators and can avoid the public scrutiny that public schools cannot.
Charter expansion is made possible by a recent plan to close down 26 public schools. By eliminating public schools, the city has room for charters to come in. School closings have impacted the poorest neighborhoods in the city, including Sandtown-Winchester which is losing one school under this plan. Claiming that it cannot afford to maintain buildings that are “under-utilized,” below a state-determined number for capacity, and “poorly performing,” defined narrowly by test scores, the city has even argued that closure will be good for the city’s neighborhoods since it will save funds and will allow more schools access to state dollars for renovation and improvements.
Closing a school is never good for a community. Even when it is not producing high academic achievement, it is a public institution that serves a community’s children food and offers a space for democratic participation. The closures are an opportunity for educational management organizations though. They are beginning to lay claim to some of the closing schools, hoping to access dollars being made available for charter schools and renovation. Langston Hughes Elementary, for example, is one of those schools. Situated in a neighborhood, Park Heights, that struggles economically, Langston Hughes is a school that is well-regarded by the community. The school is slated for closure at the end of the 2015-2016 school year. George Mitchell, a local activist, has already been contacted about putting a charter in the Langston Hughes building. For him, moving a charter into the building means the end for the community. He said, “Closing a public school that is working for the community is just wrong.”
Consequently, the neighborhood is resisting the school’s closure. For Mitchell and fellow activists, the fight is not just about Langston Hughes Elementary, but it is about maintaining control over the neighborhood that they live in. It is about resisting policies and plans that ignore the poorest residents of the city in favor of new, more affluent ones. It is about maintaining the one public institution left in their communities, public schools. In neighborhoods like Park Heights and Sandtown-Winchester, the public school is the one place where opportunity can thrive. Without it, inequality wins, racism wins and a system that produced devastating outcomes for Freddie Gray wins.