Legacy of Entrenched Racial Discrimination Fueled Baltimore Riots

Community Leader Dr. Helena Hicks Gazes out of the window while riding around the Sandtown-Windchester neighborhood of Baltimore.


On a recent sunny afternoon in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore’s poorest and roughest district, a horse dragging a wooden cart laden with fruit and vegetables offered a peak into the rich history and impoverished reality that have made Baltimore this year’s symbol of urban neglect.

The cart, with its load of watermelons and tomatoes and its singing custodian, is a vestige of the old “arabber” merchant tradition, and if it weren’t for the boarded-up buildings and the open-air heroin market nearby, it could be considered quaint. But the cart serves a need rather than nostalgia. There is no grocery anywhere near this section of Sandtown-Winchester. Fresh fruit and vegetables still arrive here as they did 200 years ago.

Sandtown-Winchester is not so much a neighborhood but the ruins of one.

Teachers remind their students that Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, graduated from a high school in Sandtown, which now leads all of Maryland in the number of residents who are in prison. A nearby statue of the jazz great Billie Holiday, who grew up around here, is etched with a crow to honor the struggle under Jim Crow laws; studies show that Baltimore remains one of the nation’s most segregated, with almost no change in racial makeup in decades.

Given the grim statistics — people in Sandtown will make less money and die younger than residents anywhere else in Maryland — it didn’t sound hyperbolic when a resident, gesturing toward the condemned buildings that serve as the backdrop for daily life, invoked one of the country’s worst national disasters when he yelled, “Every day is Katrina! Every day is a Katrina here!”

Except, locals stress, this disaster is man-made, the legacy of segregation, unemployment and addiction, resulting in living conditions that one might expect to find in a far-flung developing nation rather than an hour’s drive from the White House....