In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the term “structural racism” has moved from the academic world into the public conversation — a shorthand way to talk about why Black Americans can do everything right and still find themselves with less income and wealth than white Americans of similar education, consigned to live in poorer neighborhoods, with fewer opportunities, more repressive policing and worse life outcomes.
If the idea still sounds abstract to policymakers in Washington, they don’t have to look far to observe its realities. They can just drive an hour north, to Baltimore — and see what is not there.
Sorely missing is a long-planned east-west transit route that would connect isolated Black Baltimore neighborhoods to downtown and suburban job centers and to other rail lines. In 2014, the Obama administration offered Maryland a selective “New Starts” grant of $900 million to finally build what was called the Red Line — a project that would not only have connected thousands of Black Marylanders to better jobs but would also create a comprehensive transit system that might restart the Baltimore region’s economy and improve race relations by building literal connections between communities.
Today, there’s no construction of rail in Baltimore. The $900 million has been returned to the federal government. The state of Maryland redirected $736 million of state funds originally set aside for the Red Line to building roads instead — in predominantly white areas. And the U.S. Department of Transportation, which was supposed to investigate whether that decision was illegal and discriminatory, quietly closed the case without making any public findings.
Transportation investment and disinvestment have been central in Baltimore’s long saga of racial segregation and inequity, and the Red Line was the most recent chapter. Since Gov. Larry Hogan killed the Red Line in 2015, it has become a rallying cry for transit and racial-justice activists in Baltimore and beyond.
But the full extent of the injustice is just coming to light. Material obtained by a legal clinic I worked with at Georgetown Law School, through Maryland’s freedom-of-information statute, shows that federal officials acknowledged the potential racial impact of the decision to cancel the Red Line and the possibility that the decision violated civil rights law — and then for unclear reasons, dropped their investigation.
It was Hogan’s decision to cancel the Red Line. To give an idea of how insidious structural racism can be, as a matter of politics, consider that Hogan is considered one of the “good guys” among national Republican governors. He has a high approval rating in a blue state and is considering running for president in 2024. Hogan is also a Trump critic who advocates for a bigger-tent GOP that is “inclusive” and avoids “divisive rhetoric.”
But his budgetary treatment of Baltimore tells a very different story — one that is woven deeply into decades of discriminatory American policy.
In 1965, urban planners mapped routes for six rapid-transit lines that would radiate from downtown Baltimore to the suburban edges. But white suburbanites massively resisted both transit and open housing policies that would enable Blacks to move to their neighborhoods. As a result, Baltimore County grew whiter and Baltimore city blacker and more isolated from jobs and amenities. Plans for a comprehensive rail system remained a paper dream and only two transit lines were built.
What got built and where is telling. One of the lines is a light-rail route that largely serves whites in the northern reaches of the city and suburbs who wish to travel south to Baltimore’s tourist-centered Inner Harbor and the retro-style Camden Yards baseball stadium; it continues south to the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The other is a subway line that runs 15 miles northwest from Baltimore to Owings Mill though the line stops well short of that suburb’s signature town center and shopping mall, rendering it not entirely effective for commuters. These two lines do not even connect to each other.
In 2002, Gov. Parris Glendening, an advocate of so-called smart growth which integrates transit and housing development, supported new planning for what would be called the Red Line. (The name is ironic for a proposed corridor in which the majority of residents are Black Americans living in historically segregated and “redlined” neighborhoods.)
The proposed 14-mile line included a 3.4-mile tunnel that would have allowed riders to glide under congested downtown streets where cars crawl at less than 12 mph at peak periods. Planners also proposed stops connecting to Amtrak and the regional MARC train routes, to create a comprehensive rail system. Baltimore was more than a century overdue for racial healing and the city was going to be united, at least physically, through transit.
The planning process did begin to repair trust and relations between the city and its Black neighborhoods and between those neighborhoods and predominantly white ones. Dozens of individuals, organizations and state and local government officials signed the Red Line Community Compact — a blueprint for ensuring that Baltimore residents and businesses participated in construction, that the Red Line improved the environment, and citizens had a voice in fostering community-centered development.
West Baltimore communities denuded of commerce were rezoned for mixed uses, anticipating new economic and civic activity around each station. Each proposed station had an advisory committee to help shape their neighborhood’s renewal. Edmondson-Westside High School, for example, was going to train local adults and students to enter jobs in construction, maintenance and transit operations. One elder advocated for new trees to beautify their station. Citizens planted many ideas — the kind of civic roots, if allowed to grow, that might discourage violence in poor neighborhoods.
By 2015, all the needed planning, engineering, environmental and health impact assessments, financing and political compromise for the Red Line route had been completed. The state of Maryland had spent $288 million on planning and right-of-way acquisitions. The Maryland General Assembly had approved a gas-tax increase to fund the project and the state had committed to pay $1.2 billion from the State Transportation Trust Fund for the state’s share of construction costs. Maryland had applied for and won the $900 million “New Starts” grant from the federal government. Construction was set to begin later in 2015.
In Jan. 2015, Gov. Hogan took office. Less than six months later, in June 2015, he announced that the Red Line was canceled.
Hogan, founder of an eponymous commercial real estate business, was an established skeptic of transit rail, which he deemed too expensive, and a believer in highway asphalt. In his first bid for governor, he argued against light rail — which opposing suburbanites sometimes derided as “loot rail” — and strenuously advocated for roads. Rail, no; roads, yes — polar positions that helped to defeat Black Democrat, Anthony Brown.
As governor, Hogan’s decision to reallocate funds away from the Red Line came two months after the uprisings in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray after mistreatment by Baltimore police officers. The violence had put Baltimore at the center of national debates and protests about anti-Black policing and disinvestment in Black neighborhoods. But Hogan called those who vandalized “thugs,” and complained aloud about the $20 million the state had to spend in response to the protests. He all but used this extra cost to further justify canceling the Red Line.
Hogan dismissed the project as “a wasteful boondoggle” and defended rescinding it because he “oppose[d] wasteful and irresponsible spending on poorly conceived projects.” The planned 3.4-mile tunnel provoked him the most. He viewed it as a costly indulgence, even though running the Red Line under the worst of Baltimore traffic in order to facilitate “rapid” transit was a central feature of a system designed to dramatically reduce commute times and ease downtown congestion for everyone.
He returned the $900 million selective federal grant for the project and reallocated all of the state money that had been earmarked for the Red Line’s first construction phase — $736 million — to road projects in exurban and rural areas. In the end, not a single road or pothole in Baltimore would be paved with the money that had been set aside for the Red Line.
Yet not all light rail got the ax. Hogan did not cancel the Purple Line, which will open in 2022 and run through Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in wealthier suburbs of Washington and connect to D.C.’s Metro subway system.
The Purple Line and Hogan’s other budgetary priorities at the time of the Red Line cancellation suggest a pattern of favoring white communities over Black communities in the allocation of public funds. Upon taking office he declared that Baltimore was “declining rather than improving,” and cut $36 million from its schools budget, but approved $30 million to build a youth jail in the city — a breathtaking message signaling what Hogan thought of the city and its youth.
Hogan also cut or lowered tolls on suburban highways and bridges while Baltimoreans endured fare increases on buses, rail and commuter lines. He supported expensive road projects of dubious necessity in sparsely populated rural areas while not scheduling needed road projects for Baltimore.
For Black Baltimoreans and allies watching, the pattern of investing public funds in white areas and disinvesting from Black neighborhoods could not have been more obvious.
The racial injustice of these decisions mobilized civil rights groups. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a complaint with the federal Department of Transportation, arguing that whites received a 228 percent net increase in benefits from the Red Line cancellation and reallocation while Black Americans lost benefits at minus 124 percent and that this racial disparity violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Title VI is a key provision in U.S. civil rights law, one that holds decision-makers accountable for the effects of their decisions, not just their avowed rationale. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance and prohibited racial discrimination may be intentional or unintentional. Most critically, the result of allegedly neutral practices can have a “disparate impact” on a racial group, and Title VI, as implemented in federal regulations, renders that illegal.
The iconic distressed neighborhoods of East and West Baltimore along the proposed corridor of the Red Line, on average, were 80 percent Black, 30 percent poor and 65 percent female-headed. Forty-four percent of residents along the planned corridor did not own a car. Fewer than 2 percent of jobs in Baltimore are located in Black neighborhoods along the proposed Red Line corridor. For carless residents of those neighborhoods, without the Red Line, commuting to the job-rich parts of the Baltimore region is a nightmare.
The lives of carless single Black mothers who needed to get children to school and themselves to work were made incredibly difficult by a maddeningly slow MTA bus system in which a 20-minute car commute would stretch to 90 minutes on the bus. With the Red Line canceled, they lost the opportunity for nearly halving their commute times, for gaining a projected 10,000 new jobs in Baltimore that Black residents might apply for, and for spurring renewal and transit-oriented development in chronically disinvested Black neighborhoods. Lost, too, was the possibility of reducing air pollution for the city with the poorest air quality and highest rates of pediatric asthma in the state.
The Obama administration’s Department of Transportation opened an investigation on the assertions that appear in the Legal Defense Fund’s complaint and a similar one filed by Baltimore transit activists. But the Trump administration closed the investigation without making any findings. In lieu of an investigation of the joined complaints, it said it would conduct a comprehensive review of Maryland’s transportation programs for compliance with Title VI.
The Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic sought to find out whether the Transportation Department followed through with that investigation. In January of this year, the Clinic filed freedom of information statutory requests with both the Maryland Department of Transportation and the federal Transportation Department. The Trump administration has yet to release any material in response to the Freedom of Information Act request, citing the Covid-19 pandemic for the delay, but this spring, MDOT disclosed a trove of documents and emails that my dedicated research assistant and I recently perused.
Most telling were email communications between U.S. and Maryland officials in 2018. Federal officials had opened a “Corrective Action” and informed MDOT that it had to conduct a comprehensive Title VI analysis of its transportation spending. They rejected MDOT’s initial response, saying it had “simply provided a conclusion that disparate impacts did not exist,” which was insufficient evidence of compliance with Title VI. MDOT tried again; in a subsequent email it claimed that there was no disparate impact violation because “large amounts of both State and federal funded investments in transit and other transportation modes closely correlated with the Census tracts with higher minority population.”
In its answer, MDOT did not quantify what these “large amounts” were, for what projects or which minority communities allegedly benefited. It referred to funding formulas and maps provided in its previous, rejected explanation and offered a link to a previously published 565-page consolidated report that catalogued where transportation funds were allocated in given years. Those reports do not mention race at all. They were not designed to, and did not, assess racial equity.
Perhaps it is true, as MDOT claimed in its emails, that “minority” census tracts were near road projects in outlying areas and ostensibly benefited from those road investments and that the Washington and Baltimore regions, where many “minorities” live, received “large amounts” of transportation funds. It is also possible the alleged “large amounts” do not make up the difference from the cancellation of the Red Line. But we don’t know, because the Trump administration officials accepted MDOT’s answer at face value and closed the corrective action without any explanation of its reasoning.
In other words, the Trump and Hogan administrations never gave a considered response to the Title VI petitioners’ core claim: that in canceling the Red Line and reallocating its funds to other projects, Hogan and Maryland favored white areas to the detriment of Black citizens. The citizens and communities that toiled for more than a decade planning the Red Line, building trust and a multiracial coalition for renewal, deserved a published, reasoned answer that could be reviewed by a federal court to determine if the agency’s logic was arbitrary or evaded the demands of Title VI. There was no opportunity, in short, for any public accountability.
Two years after rescinding the Red Line, Hogan did offer Baltimore a consolation project, $135 million for BaltimoreLink, an ostensibly revamped bus system. It was hardly a substitute, though, for the $2.9 billion unified rail system that was first envisioned in 1965. Though Hogan claimed the new bus system would be “transformative,” angry riders complained that commutes worsened as bus lines were eliminated.
The same year Hogan canceled the Red Line, Baltimore ranked last in the nation on Harvard economist Raj Chetty’s rankings for social mobility of poor children.
This is what structural racism looks like and it is a product of public policy. For decades, governments have spent public funds disproportionately on white communities, particularly those that have more than enough, while excluding Black communities and Black people from government investments — in mortgages, education, infrastructure and other services.
One epochal example that shaped segregation in the Baltimore region and everywhere else African Americans in the Great Migration landed: The Federal Housing Administration invented the 30-year mortgage to bring homeownership to the white masses. Under this New Deal policy created by Democrats, from 1934 to 1962 whites received 98 percent of government-insured loans. Blacks were intentionally cut out of America’s signature wealth-building policy and the suburban American dream. This explains why today, for every dollar of wealth held by a typical white family, a typical black family holds 8 cents.
After a century of redlining, urban “Negro Removal,” intentionally concentrating poor Black Americans in segregated housing, disinvestment, foreclosures and predation, without an insistent effort to disrupt a legacy of plunder, the modern descendants of slavery in Baltimore cannot thrive. Black Democrats are not immune to the zero-sum politics of segregation. Despite being governed by a series of Black mayors, a recent equity analysis revealed that Baltimore neighborhoods that are less than half Black received nearly four times more the investment than neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly Black.
Education is supposed to be a ladder of social mobility, but education remains separate and unequal in America. Hogan recently vetoed a bill known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future that would have been a down payment on recommendations to transform Maryland public education from mediocre to world-class — recommendations from a commission, known as the Kirwan Commission, that Hogan himself helped set up.
According to Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services, Baltimore City Schools are underfunded by $342 million annually, causing Charm City’s children to endure among the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the state. All told, the Kirwan Commission’s proposals, after a 10-year phase-in, were estimated to cost $4 billion annually. Last year, Hogan condemned the Kirwan proposals, dubiously claiming the plan would demand $6,000 in taxes from every Maryland family. Then the Covid-19 pandemic gave him a blunt fiscal defense for his veto.
The damage from Covid-19 extends far beyond the educational system, also wreaking havoc on Maryland’s economy and government tax revenues and laying bare the effects of structural inequality on Black lives. Black Americans die from the virus at higher rates than whites while having less access to health care. And now half of Black adults are unemployed.
As the pandemic shreds budgets, there is a serious risk that state investment in elites and preying on Black people for fees and revenue will worsen.
Repair or reparation of racial inequality in Baltimore would include funding the Red Line, the proposals of the Kirwan Commission and other possibilities. Yes, in Baltimore and elsewhere resources should be reallocated from policing to redress perennial defunding of Black communities. Other systemic work is also required, including encouraging rather than discouraging integrated schools and neighborhoods that offer opportunity to all.
But here’s the crux: Dismantling unjust budgetary habits and reducing systemic racism will require sacrifices from white communities that have disproportionately benefited from these policies for decades. In a revolutionary moment where 96 percent of Americans are acknowledging that Black Americans face discrimination, are we finally ready to readjust our spending priorities?
If so, Baltimore’s Red Line would be a good place to start.
Source: Politico, How Larry Hogan Kept Blacks in Baltimore Segregated and Poor