Elijah Cummings

In my congressional work for the people of our region, I often must respond to challenges about Baltimore from some of my Republican colleagues.

“You Black Democrats have been in control of Baltimore City for all of these years,” they observe.  “How did you let it get so bad?  It is your fault.”

Although some might offer an angry or defensive response to these attacks, I find it more productive to use those confrontations as teachable moments.  My continuing objective is to educate my colleagues about our unjust racial past, both here in Baltimore and within so many of our nation’s other major cities.

“The hard-working families of my inner city Baltimore neighborhood rightly expect that their elected representatives will work just as hard at achieving constructive change,” I reply, “but they also understand — from their own families’ histories — that the generational pockets of extreme poverty in Baltimore today are a tenacious legacy of our segregated past.”

A Brief and Partial History

In 1910, I continue, the Baltimore City Council enacted what, in effect, was an ordinance of local apartheid.  No Black family could legally occupy a home on a block where more than half the residents were White; and no White family could live where more than half the residents were Black.

When the courts eventually overturned that legally sanctioned segregation, Baltimore City adopted the “Chicago Strategy.”   Building and health department inspectors were directed to lodge frivolous and punitive code violations against any who violated the segregation policy.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore and other cities, White neighborhood associations imposed restrictive covenants barring sales to prospective Black purchasers — conscious, legally enforced segregation that our federal government, through the Federal Housing Administration, openly supported between the 1930s and 1960s.

That federally-sanctioned and racially-focused “redlining” by the FHA, combined with discrimination in home lending against African Americans, wherever we lived, effectively barred all but the most tenacious and successful Black Baltimoreans from the federally-backed credit system.

This, in turn, prevented many Black families, in Baltimore and elsewhere, from building the generational equity that is a major financial foundation for higher education, wealth, and social stability in our capitalistic society.

To the contrary, many predominately African American neighborhoods became the hunting grounds for predatory lending and other financial exploitation that continues, if more subtly, in America’s urban areas to this day.

Speaking the Whole Truth to Power

All of these responses to my Republican critics are historical truth.  Yet, they are not the whole truth.

The broader truth about Baltimore’s history is also that, despite the discriminatory burdens of being Black in America, many, many African Americans have succeeded in breaking the bonds of past discrimination — their liberation aided by the more recent, more enlightened government policies that were the product of past Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

Yet, despite these gains, far too many African American neighborhoods burdened by extreme, generational poverty continue to exist, limiting the future of Baltimore and so many other great American cities.

This is why the lessons of Baltimore teach us that we must continue our efforts to moderate the use of force by our police officers and comprehensively reform why we put people in prison, what happens to them there and how they return to society.

We must continue to fight for expanded federal funding to America’s inner-city neighborhoods — while, locally, we actively encourage our City and State leaders to implement reforms like the Baltimore Metropolitan Council’s Plan for Sustainable Development.

Expanded workforce training will qualify more of our neighbors for mid-skilled jobs that pay living wages.  Improved public transit services will better connect working families to jobs, training opportunities, and safe, affordable housing.

Civic Engagement and Our Shared Path Forward

In Washington, the conscious ignorance and apparent indifference of some of my Republican critics to our nation’s past and continuing racial inequities are both morally appalling and socially dangerous.

If they cannot be convinced to support the reforms that our nation so clearly needs, they must be defeated at the polls.

These, after all, are the same reactionary political forces that now are proposing Donald Trump as our next President, denying President Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, and seeking to steer our entire federal government back toward the failed policies of our past.

I continue to believe that the arc of history bends toward greater justice for everyone — but only if that justice is demanded by an engaged citizenry.

This is why all of us, as Americans, must exercise the full measure of our citizenship — on Election Day and every other day — until universal justice is won.

We must vote for leaders who will advance progressive and inclusive social and economic policies, and, then, we must remain engaged with our elected officials at every level until a more equitable society prevails.

These are the lessons that we are now struggling to implement here in Maryland — the same lessons that will allow America to fulfill her destiny.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.