What is Possible?

How the Current Developmental Path Reinforces the Status Quo

Baltimore’s current developmental path is based on a twofold approach. On the one hand the city uses a combination of federal, state, and local government resources to subsidize capital development in ways that tend to benefit real estate developers, the tourist sector, and Baltimore’s primary employers, as well as the individuals likely to garner employment from these sectors. On the other they use— through the series of policy choices as outlined above— a combination of federal, state, and local government resources to cordon off and sanction populations less likely to benefit (and most likely to be perceived as a threat).

Creating jobs in the city has been an important centerpiece of economic development. As it stands, the five most important sectors of Baltimore’s economy measured by employment are: education and health services, trade transportation and utilities, government, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality. The education and health-care sectors dominate the list of the ten largest employers in Baltimore, with Johns Hopkins (the university and the health system) and the University of Maryland (the university and the health system) taking up the top four slots, and individual health service providers taking up five of the remaining six. While these employers provide significant opportunities for residents with relatively high levels of education they provide less opportunities for those with lower levels of education—the jobs they are likely to provide residents of neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester are likely jobs that pay poorly, have little room for advancement, provide little in the way of respect, and have poor benefits. The City of Baltimore is responsible for 1/3 of Maryland’s incarcerated population, with several hundred coming from Sandtown-Winchester and neighborhoods like it (Justice Policy Institute and Prison Policy Institute 2015).

Likewise, keeping with the policy trends of the past, reflecting the dynamics listed above, a common policy theme has been the wooing of large-scale, national employers and investment in classical notions of entrepreneurship. But while the presence of national-reach industries or even thriving locally-owned small businesses does add to the city’s job offerings, too little attention is paid to what kind of jobs they create, how long they will last, whether such jobs are viable supports to growing families and, as the recent civic conflict regarding Port Covington showed, whether the employers themselves behave like good citizens and community members. Such questions are not thought answerable, such concerns not thought viable within the existing imaginary. But, given the history of city policies that—through housing, education, and health impacts—have narrowed the opportunities for workers, and black workers in particular, this requires a foundational shift in approach.

Examining the Freddie Gray death as a core example of anti-black policing rather than as part of a much broader form of economic violence narrows our political imagination, focusing our gaze solution-wise on better policing, rather than on restructuring the political economy that makes Gray’s death not only possible but required.

As outlined above, another recurrent policy theme, affecting everything from tax policy, to education, to funding for the arts, has been a focus on expanding the city’s tax base. Investment in cultural programming and infrastructure, for instance, has been part of an attempt to attract residents with higher income, even while many of those attempts displace community members and leave them out of many of the “perks” in which the city has invested. Finally, a hidden but important agent of these tax-base-expanding policy aims are the “third sector” (foundations and nonprofits) actors who provide crucial capital and services, but, as nongovernmental agencies, must comply with only the most superficial of systems to hold them accountable to the communities they partner with and serve. This is especially important because third sector leadership tends to contain disproportionate numbers of civic elites, whether racial or economic, and their political imagination reflects that.

What could that restructuring look like? Below we present further exploration and proposals in several policy areas, so as to support that foundational shift and expand Baltimore’s political imagination.

They are not intended to be exhaustive; rather, we hope that each point represents a crucial marker. We see them as sharing some commonalities, however:

  1. Causes are interrelated; solutions must be, too.

This paper aims to show the multiple forces that have created Baltimore’s political economy status quo. It’s important to note that even when admirable progress has been made (e.g., certain policies eliminated) the same, interrelated and underlying, forces tend to limit such efforts. No policy will foundationally shift this status quo unless it has the courage to fully engage this interrelatedness.

  • The status quo persists fundamentally because of gatekeeping power dynamics.

Many institutions have invested heavily in racial- and other equity work, which is both necessary and important in addressing the role of white supremacy in the city’s status quo. However, gatekeeping power dynamics often persist. Moreover, they are often embedded in industry-wide practices (e.g., pursuit and promotion of “thought leaders,” “innovators,” or “creative class”) that double down on the power dynamic by centralizing and increasing the power of those who dub (or materially support) such people’s “success,” instead of the power and access of the affected communities.

  • Solutions must move from extractive to solidarity economics.

Solidarity economics are, first, non-extractive of either financial or social capital. Extractive enterprise is that which seeks to withdraw a resource (can be anything from material or economic forms, to cultural forms, to social-network access or credibility) without consent, cooperation, or compensation. Practically, this means an analysis not only of what is ostensibly “given” (or, gained) to the city, but the real costs, including for instance the ways that such partnerships solidify segregation or other gatekeeping. Those social ills cost the city financially but are rarely measured; rather, they are considered externalities.

Second, they invest in self-determination. Whether it is ability of workers to determine conditions at their workplace, neighborhoods to determine their housing or school development, or affected communities to determine their problems and solutions (instead of merely being invited to institutional “listening sessions”), they invest in moving organizations’ resources and gaze away from gatekeeping and into mutual aid and genuine power sharing. In practical and economic terms, for example, this would mean being real about the role that access to capital plays in all kinds of decisionmaking, investing in ways to fund not only jobs or houses for individuals, but forms that also give access to capital.

Finally, just as a foundational shift must be accountable to other social forces at play, it must also be accountable to forces that have been at play. Baltimore’s segregated neighborhoods — the so-called “white L” and “black butterfly”[15]—reflect past policies and practices, and must be addressed as such, with policies that acknowledge this history of punitive economics, and replace them with restorative economics. This means, for instance, addressing the underlying concept of “expanding” a pie whose slices (e.g., spending on policing) have not yet been sufficiently analyzed in light of the city’s policy history. Likewise, economic policies must start to “see” existing resources in Baltimore—people, ideas, communities— in non-extractive ways, which involves a very different suite of economic development practices than merely seeking to bring in outside industry, or further invest in existing institutions’ extractive dynamics. These unseen resources can generate livelihoods—and families, and communities— as well as other benefits that are not “seen” by Baltimore’s existing political imagination, either.

It is important to note that #3 depends on #1 and #2: solidarity economics may require that fundamental values, beliefs—embedded in the political imagination that produced the status quo—must be put on the table. This might enable communities in Baltimore to ask anew, what other ways of economically “supporting” change in the city might we engage, which actually empower citizens’ democratic rights, and more possibly embody the values such rights profess.

[15]Brown, Lawrence. “Two Baltimores: The White L versus the Black Butterfly.” City Paper, June 28 2016