Sara Patenaude: Trump’s Baltimore tweets were racist. But he also fails to grasp what ails our cities

A construction worker carries bars while helping build a scaffolding on the side of a hotel in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore. In the latest rhetorical shot at lawmakers of color, President Donald Trump over the weekend vilified Rep. Elijah Cummings majority-black Baltimore district as a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" where "no human being would want to live." (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

President Donald Trump's caustic tweets about Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and his home city of Baltimore were not only factually incorrect and racist, but they also ignore a glaring reality: even if African American neighborhoods in Baltimore were in the horrific condition that Trump described, the cause would be more than a century of racist policies, not a lack of focus from the local black congressman. Nowhere is this clearer than in housing policies that have left our cities deeply segregated and inequitable.

Baltimore has been plagued by racist housing policies and their legacy for more than a century. From a law that prohibited whites from living on majority African American blocks and African Americans from living on majority white blocks (a practice later ruled illegal by the Supreme Court), to racially restrictive covenants, to federally-backed mortgage lending practices that hindered black wealth-building, to the destruction caused by urban renewal and highway construction that literally paved over or cleaved in two minority neighborhoods, housing segregation in Baltimore, as in countless other cities, has been the result of public policies and industry customs that limited options for African Americans, jacked up prices for substandard accommodations and discouraged investment in African American neighborhoods.

Even when segregation in housing was officially outlawed, countless other policies — invisible to most white Americans — enabled or ensured that segregated housing would continue, with devastating effects.

Nowhere was this clearer than in Baltimore’s public housing projects. Officials declared these housing projects desegregated in 1954. The reality was quite different from this public pronouncement, however. The housing authority removed the projects’ formal racial designations — but took no steps to put into place any policies or processes that would encourage residents to move or facilitate breaking down racial barriers for residents. For black residents, moving into all-white housing projects was actively dangerous — black Baltimoreans trying to cross the color line had for years faced threats of physical violence. When no black residents were willing to put their families in such harm’s way, housing officials declared that the black residents were choosing to remain segregated.

More than a decade later, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs called Baltimore's policy into question, pointing out that three of the housing projects within the city's majority-black public housing program had 100% white occupancy. The housing authority responded that "no non-white family has asked" to move into those projects, ignoring the violent reality that took away their choices.

Black public housing residents had reason to be afraid. When a letter went out announcing that the housing authority would finally take affirmative steps to desegregate Baltimore's remaining all-white housing projects in 1966, one copy was returned emblazoned with a swastika and the threatening words "WE ARE READY." Protesters against desegregation distributed flyers denigrating the future black residents as thieves, murderers and rapists. When the first black residents moved into the Brooklyn Homes project in south Baltimore, the Ku Klux Klan rallied for three days outside the home of Shirley Rivers, a black single mother who lived in the project with her three preschool-aged children.

Despite the belated efforts to move some black residents into Baltimore's formerly all-white housing projects, three projects remained overwhelmingly white through the 1980s.

To distract from the root of the housing problem, Baltimore officials also justified maintaining these three public housing projects as nearly all-white well after white flight to the suburbs left the city with a majority African-American population. Officials actively conspired to maintain these projects as majority white in part to shore up the system-wide appearance of desegregation. Baltimore's housing officials feared that forcing white residents into integrated projects would cause wholesale abandonment of the city's public housing by whites, further increasing the racialized stigma against public housing and its residents.

And so, on multiple fronts, Baltimore terminated formal racial segregation but did nothing to integrate housing, showing a total disregard for how de facto segregation functions.

Doing so, the city was able to claim an overall racially mixed program, even though its reality was starkly different for residents. In 1955, Baltimore Housing Authority Director Ellis Ash bragged that "the Baltimore Authority has not applied its policy [of desegregation] on the premise that integration must be achieved throughout the program, if this means that families are required to either live in particular projects or sacrifice their opportunities for housing." As a result of this attitude and subsequent policies reinforcing it, Baltimore's housing projects remained effectively segregated into the 1990s, triggering a nearly two-decade-long lawsuit against the city housing authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs.

This legacy continues to negatively impact the city today. Waitlists for the Housing Choice Vouchers mandated by the lawsuit settlement ballooned to such a degree that the waitlist was closed in 2017. Investment in Baltimore still follows racially segregated patterns, with capital flowing into white neighborhoods at rates far exceeding black neighborhoods. Maps of data as varied as home sale prices, food deserts and even Zipcar locations all closely mirror the racial distribution of the city.

And the misbegotten notion that choice is what's driving segregated housing persists to today: New York Deputy Mayor of Housing and Economic Development Vicki Been recently asserted to a reporter that "segregation is a question of choice," as she sought to downplay a report revealing the devastating legacies of housing segregation in that city. Clinging to this false perception allows us to avoid actually undertaking policies to ameliorate the legacies of racism in housing.

So while the public was outraged by the racism dripping in Trump's tweets and the unfair characterization of Baltimore, it is worth also remembering that the disadvantaged African American neighborhoods that Trump attempted to put down are struggling precisely because of racist policies enacted by white politicians like him - not choice, or an absentee congressman. These policies have left toxic legacies: Housing segregation ensures unequal access to shared resources and impedes progress on affordable housing policy and prosperity more broadly. Only by directly addressing the systemic problems created and reinforced by a history of racist policies will policymakers have any appreciable effect on residential segregation in the future.

Sara Patenaude

Sara Patenaude is an affordable housing researcher, developer and advocate based in Atlanta, Georgia.