Laslo Boyd: Will it be different this time?

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By Laslo Boyd

When bad things happen, we want to believe that people will make changes to prevent a recurrence of the particular problem.  You’ve heard the assertion “This changes everything” on numerous occasions.  

The aftermath of 9/11 certainly led to dramatic changes in the way we lead our lives in this country even if some of them, such as monitoring our phone calls, were not what we might have expected.  Similarly, the Dodd-Frank law enacted after the financial meltdown of 2008 may not have broken up giant banking enterprises, but it did create new regulations for how they operate.

In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody last month and the rioting that followed, there have been wide-ranging conversations, analyses, and commentary about just what happened and what needs to change.  

Much of the discussion has focused on long-term concentrated poverty in Baltimore City as the fundamental cause of what boiled over in the last few weeks.  At the same time, some observers have looked at more specific issues, such as the problems of the City Schools, the lack of jobs, transportation deficiencies that separate employment opportunities from the unemployed, and a continuing scourge of drugs.   Feel free to add to that list, but the point is that it’s not hard to identify serious issues that have been with us for a long time.

Some of the responses in Baltimore seem to take their inspiration from Margaret Mead, who once famously said that the efforts of a small group of dedicated people are the only sure causes of important change.  You could see some of those groups in action working to restore calm during the rioting and, afterwards, helping to clean up and rebuild.  You can see on social media the kind of public commitment to a better Baltimore that exemplifies what Mead was saying.

A few months ago, I wrote about another example, the Inner Harbor Project.  It is an impressive effort to break down the barriers between police and teens in the Inner Harbor.  That there are other efforts to build trust and draw upon the commitment of the vast majority of Baltimore’s citizens to a better city is certainly encouraging.

But at the end of the day, Mead’s prescription is not enough.  The problems that put Baltimore in the national spotlight were in part created by public policy decisions, some misguided, some with unanticipated consequences, and some that ignored fundamental challenges.

We have in this country tried from time to time to confront poverty through the efforts of government, most significantly through President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  Revisionist history argues that the effort was a failure, but, more significantly, the country ran out of patience, interest, and money for the challenge.  As President, Jimmy Carter resurrected a federal urban policy, but ever since his one-term in office, cities and poverty have received little attention and less support from Washington.

Federal policy after World War II helped create suburbs through housing and transportation initiatives.  The long-term result has been a re-segregation of many metropolitan areas by both race and income.  And as numerous studies have conclusively demonstrated, the crisis in our public schools can be traced directly to that separation by race, class, and income of students.

As politics in this country have become more polarized, mean-spirited, and confrontational, there has been little effective voice for the poor, particularly when so many of the poor are racial minorities.  And in one of the sad ironies of the current situation, the poor are the group now least likely to vote and participate in electoral politics.  The billionaires who are turning our system into an oligarchy could be stymied if those citizens small in dollars but large in number could ever be mobilized as active citizens.

The most depressing thing I can recall in recent years was the failure to enact reasonable restrictions on firearms after the school massacre in New Town, Connecticut.  The question facing Baltimore is whether, after a period of good intentions, anything changes. 

The efforts by motivated citizens are important and to be applauded, but they have to be accompanied by political action and public policy.  As I wrote in last week’s column, and as I was pleased to see Dan Rodricks mention in two of his Baltimore Sun articles, the analysis by urban scholar David Rusk is still the most compelling assessment of the basic problem facing the city.  Highly concentrated poverty contributes significantly to every other problem you can identify. 

We’ve actually known that for a long time.  The dilemma is that all our efforts to deal with it have faded before strong political backlash.   The irony is that failing to confront that problem has weakened the entire Baltimore region and the rest of the State.

So, by all means, let’s move on the pieces of the puzzle while keeping the big picture in mind.  Money for the public schools is no panacea, but no one has ever made the case that having less money will improve things.  Build the Red Line to create jobs, open up new economic development opportunities, and help unemployed residents get to where the jobs are or will be.  Aggressively pursue the small minority that is responsible for a disproportionate share of crime in the city while ensuring that the police treat law-biding citizens with respect and civility.

If, however, we are ever going to tackle the central problem, it will take bold and courageous leadership from all parts of the community.  Breaking up concentrated poverty in Baltimore will take a unique and unprecedented partnership between the State, the City, other jurisdictions, the business community, religious leaders, and everyone who wants to avoid repeating the failures of the past.

Are we going to return to business as usual or are we going to use this moment of crisis to build a better city, region, and State?

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.