Submitted to the AFRO by Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead
Baltimore is a small town and it is officially divided into nine geographical regions, with over 200 different neighborhoods that are as individual as they are different. I have found that the only way to get a true sense of the lifeblood of this city is to immerse yourself in the different neighborhoods, walk the streets, visit the corner stores, and talk to the people. I would argue that there are two Baltimores, one white and economically advantaged, the other Black and economically challenged—separate and unequal. This system of economic apartheid is like a virus, in that it impacts every aspect of a person’s life from air quality to life expectancy, from clean drinkable water to lack of dependable regular city services, and from literacy rates to murder rates.
We live in the richest state in the country but within Baltimore City, a predominantly Black city, white residents make almost twice as much as Black residents. Unemployment rates for young Black men are three times higher than for young White men and 61% of Black children live in low-income households that have incomes that are less than two times the poverty level. Black Baltimore is struggling. To be clear: life expectancy within Black neighborhoods, like Upton and Druid Heights, where the median income is about $13,388 a year, is only 63 years and the residents have a three times higher rate of dying from heart disease, eight times higher rate of dying from diabetes, 15 times higher rate of dying from homicide, and 20 times higher rate of dying from HIV than in Roland Park, a predominantly white neighborhood, less than five miles away, where the median income is about $90,492 and the life expectancy increases by 20 years. Two Baltimores—separate and unequal.
Last week, I hosted a Teen Summit at the Academy for College and Career Exploration, located in Hampden. After visiting so many schools in this city, I was pleasantly surprised at the building. It was clean and bright with a library, tight security protocols, smartboards, microphones, Science labs, and computers. I walked through the halls and talked to the students and teachers and what I found is that although the location and building are new, the students and the problems are not. The school was formerly housed at Lake Clifton Eastern High School, where they struggled with discipline problems, high dropout rates, violence and low test scores. According to the teachers, before the school opened in Hampden, the neighborhood rallied and worked to block it. There were community meetings held and there was a sense that this school, with these students, was not welcome or wanted in this predominantly White community. When I met with the students, they told me that they are routinely called the n-word by White residents who ride by them while they are walking to and from school. Earlier this year, there was a melee between the White residents and the Black students that resulted in the cops being called and a student being arrested. The teachers and the students are adamant that the disturbance was started by the residents and that the students were only defending themselves.
I asked the students to give me a sense of what they believe is happening at their school and in this community. “White people hate us,” Peyton, an 11th grader, shouted, “because we’re Black and they think we’re poor.” “Facts,” Amir agreed, “They hate us. Every time I go into a white neighborhood, they look at me like I don’t belong or that I’m getting ready to wreck some (stuff) up. There are two Baltimores and we live in the wrong one.” One female student jumped in, “Yep, they hate us and it’s only because we’re Black and that’s the one thing that we can’t control or change.” Ronald stood up and came over and grabbed the mic, “They don’t hate us, they’re just afraid of us. It’s not two Baltimores, it’s one city. When the Mayor makes a decision about Baltimore, it affects all of us. When they don’t pick up the trash on my block, the whole city is seen as dirty. When somebody gets killed in my hood, people think that all of Baltimore is dangerous.” It was obvious that this was a well-worn topic of discussion because everyone started sharing their stories about their experiences with racism and white supremacy and about how they are made to feel like they don’t belong in certain parts of Baltimore. Kiwan told me that they talk about it all the time, “We know that there are two Baltimores. We live in one and we go to school in the other. They don’t have to tell us we’re not welcome, we get it. We know that if they call the police, we’re going to jail even if we didn’t do or say anything. That’s just the way it is.” “It’s hard sometimes,” Peyton said, “because it feels like no matter what we do, they’re going to hate us. It’s frustrating and I don’t know,” he looked around at the class for a moment, “well, we don’t know what we can do to change it.” “Or,” Kiwan said, “if we can change it.”
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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