Baltimore: The seeds of black despair

The past is prologue.

If you want to understand Baltimore’s current turmoil, look at the childhoods of its inner-city blacks and their progress to adulthood.

Despite the American ideal of social mobility, we are not all masters of our own fortune able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. That’s the conclusion of “The Long Shadow”, a report on a groundbreaking 25-year study led by three Johns Hopkins University academics.


The study showed how hard it is for inner city blacks in Baltimore to break out from the straitjacket of poverty, dysfunctional families, limited education and crime-ridden neighborhoods.

The study followed 790 urban youth who began first grade at 20 Baltimore elementary schools in 1982 and tried to forge lives for themselves into the first decade of the twentieth century.

It’s not a pretty picture.

The de-industrialization, downsizing and impoverishment of Baltimore has left thousands of blacks behind.

In 1950, Baltimore was a major American city with 950,000 people and thriving industries. Today, downtown Baltimore is a jewel, but the city’s population is just 623,000 and it’s economy is sharply divided between well-paid professionals and an underclass with no jobs or with low-wage, low or no benefit jobs with limited potential for advancement.

A cumulative disadvantage begins in the early elementary school years. “Lower socioeconomic status and disadvantaged black youth begin school already behind on all criteria commonly used to gauge school readiness,” the study says. Then the black children who start behind find it hard to ever catch up.

The study points out that the urban disadvantaged are not all disadvantaged in the same way and to the same extent.

Disadvantaged blacks in Baltimore find life harsher than low-income whites. This is due partly to growing up in neighborhoods with more pervasive violent crime, high levels of single teen parenthood, low levels of schooling and high unemployment.

In contrast, many disadvantaged whites with low education levels in Baltimore still manage to find decent employment as adults in the remaining industrial and construction crafts. That’s partly cause they have a broader network of job contacts that grow out of their blue-collar residential enclaves.

“The networks were relics of Baltimore’s well-documented Jim Crow past, when blacks were systematically shut out of most skilled trades,” the study reported. “Modern anti-discrimination laws ended such practices’ official sanction, but white employers continued to hire mostly white workers through family and social connections rather than through formal job postings.”

And the pattern of failure for too many Baltimore blacks repeats itself when parents with little formal education and erratic employment in low-level dead-end jobs are in no position to be role models for the kinds of behaviors that will help their children succeed.

Then there are drugs and criminal records. Higher levels of drug-related arrests of blacks, even though their drug usage is comparable to that of whites, and higher rates of incarceration mean more blacks have the stain of a criminal record, further limiting employment opportunities. “To be young, black and a dropout in today’s economy is trebly disadvantaging, and a criminal record adds another strike,” the report says.

The result? A dispirited, frustrated, fatalistic black population with bleak prospects. Perfect tinder for combustion.