Three National Social and Economic Forces

How Did We Get to this Status Quo?

The passage of the Highway Act and GI Bill enabled the creation of a stable middle class, but it was also a predominantly white suburban middle-class. It also created industrial flight resulting in the loss of job opportunities in many urban areas. These legislative acts combined with technological advances reduced the need for unskilled (unionized) labor, and the size and political power of industrial cities like Baltimore. However, these policies also increased these cities’ Black population percentage (as a result of suburban practices of racial exclusion). As a result they simultaneously increased the capacity of black residents to elect and hold political representatives accountable, and decreased the capacity of those political representatives to enact policies that could deal with the effects of redlining and race and class-based segregation.

Indeed, antagonism against progressive public policy increased alongside an increase in the number of black-elected officials. While in the wake of the Great Depression, public policy (New Deal/Fair Deal, veterans, Civil Rights, and Great Society legislation) decreased economic inequality, after 1970, economic inequality increased for the first time in several decades.

Increasing municipal revenue for the purpose of increased social service provision was an option. Indeed for a brief period, cities participated in revenue sharing programs designed to return part of the money cities paid in federal taxes back to them for the purpose of social service provision. However, beginning with the 1972 election of Richard Nixon and culminating in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan we see political support for revenue sharing drop significantly forcing cities across the country to make difficult spending choices, expressed in policy decisions that amounted to assaults on workers, and on black workers in particular.

  1. De-emphasis on citizen rights, in favor of police and punishment

The first assault came in the form of increasingly punitive approaches to crime and punishment. Beginning in the seventies, and increasing in pace and intensity in the eighties and nineties, a range of political representatives and policy analysts began to move away from rehabilitative approaches to crime. With the introduction of crack cocaine in the eighties, this increasingly punitive approach took two forms. The first came in the form of a “war on drugs”. Under the aegis of this ‘war’, local, state, and federal police were given military grade equipment, a number of incentives to use this equipment,[12] and wide latitude to ignore a range of constitutional rights. The second came in the form of increased penalties levied against people who sold and consumed drugs. Black and white political officials drafted and then passed laws severely penalizing crack consumption.[13] The United States now incarcerates more citizens than any other nation, largely as a result of this fateful bipartisan consensus.

  1. Market-based approaches, favoring de-organized labor

The second assault came in the form of increased support for free trade. In the absence of international labor protections, free trade agreements sped up the process of corporate flight to nations with cheaper (and less politically organized) labor. Although the nineties are often touted as a time in which the economy was particularly robust, as it transitioned from an industrial economy to a service-tech oriented economy, the reality is a bit more complex. Employment levels were high, particularly compared to the moribund seventies and early eighties. However the amount of “bad jobs” with low wages and no or low benefits increased significantly, with these jobs concentrated among non-white populations (Wright and Dwyer 2000).

  1. Punitive approach to public services, without plan for what other social force would fill that need

The third assault came in the form of an  attack on the welfare system. In the mid-nineties Congress passed welfare reform legislation transforming AFDC (Aid to Families of Dependent Children) from a permanent benefit to TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families), a time-limited benefit. The federal government provided state and local governments who were particularly good at removing women from welfare rolls with more resources. However, the ability to gain more resources was contingent on creating punitive rather than progressive innovations.

These assaults affected workers all over the country. However, the losses were concentrated amongst urban non-white populations in cities like Baltimore, cities that relied heavily upon blue-collar labor, (the type of work that provided high wages and high benefits for industrial laborers.) Deindustrialization proved to be acutely devastating as between 1950 and 2000, Baltimore lost over 100,000 well-paying (mostly unionized) manufacturing jobs (Levine, 2000).  By the 1980s, mass deindustrialization coincided with the rise of mass incarceration, the “war on drugs”, and the rise of organized criminal drug enterprises. In 1987 Baltimore elected its second black mayor, Kurt Schmoke.[14]

[12]Police for instance were given the ability to keep the resources they seized in drug raids, increasing their coffers (sometimes significantly) during a moment in which their revenue appeared to be dwindling.
[13]People caught with crack cocaine were penalized over 100 times worse than individuals caught with the same amount of cocaine powder (Alexander, 2010).
[14]Technically Schmoke was Baltimore’s second black mayor, but first elected black mayor.