Ajmel Quereshi

Ajmel Quereshi

Since the release of the Department of Justice’s report finding that the Baltimore Police Department unconstitutionally stops and arrests African Americans, a great deal of attention has been paid – and for good reason – to the various ways in which Baltimore’s policing practices and accountability systems must change.  But, that is not the end of story. 

 As the report observes, and as anyone who has lived or spent time here can tell you, the City has a “long history of social and economic challenges,” leading to “the perception that there are ‘Two Baltimores:’ one wealthy and largely White, the second impoverished and predominantly Black.”  The recognition is an important one. Rampant dysfunction and brutality in Baltimore’s police department was well known within the City’s low-income African American communities. Wealthy White areas of the city reacted with shock at the report’s unsparing description of a problem that has existed in plain sight in the City for decades.  In addition to being regularly subjected to unconstitutional stops and arrests, many African Americans continue to live in neighborhoods where jobs are scarce, unemployment is high, and substandard housing is rampant.  In parts of West Baltimore, unemployment rates are as high as twenty-five percent. 

Racial and socioeconomic segregation in Baltimore lies at the root of the “two Baltimores” described in the DOJ report. A key contributor to segregation in Baltimore is the lack of access to basic transportation for many African-American residents who live along the City’s east-west corridor. In some neighborhoods, like the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived and fatally encountered police last year, a majority of households have no vehicle and are entirely dependent on buses for travel.  Compounding matters, buses too often run slowly, with speeds from Edmonson Village, in West Baltimore, to downtown averaging nine miles per hour during rush hour. Without a car or access to a viable means of public transportation, many residents have no way to get to the jobs that will allow them to afford better housing and, otherwise, better their lives. 

These conditions did not just happen.  Last December, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the ACLU of Maryland, the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, and the law firm of Covington and Burling, LLP, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation challenging the State’s decision to cancel plans for the Baltimore Red Line – a light rail line that would have brought thousands of jobs and much-needed development to Baltimore and that would have offered rapid transportation to jobs located at the furthest edges of the city, particularly for workers traveling East/West.  As detailed in the complaint, the State has a long history of deprioritizing the needs of Baltimore’s primarily African-American population.  These decisions date back to the State’s abandonment of its plans for a six-line rail system in the City and extend through the decision to locate the “Highway to Nowhere” in Baltimore’s predominantly African-American Franklin-Mulberry corridor. 

But, just because this has been the City’s past, that does not mean it has to be its future.  The federal Department of Transportation continues its investigation into the State’s decision to cancel the Red Line.  At issue is $1.2 billion in new money from the State that would have improved public transportation in the City, every cent of which the State withdrew after it cancelled the Red Line. The State has diverted the majority of the funds to road projects in rural and suburban parts of the state that are predominantly White.  But, it is not too late to bring the funds back to Baltimore.  A finding that the cancellation violated federal law would put significant pressure on the State to reinvest money in the City, which would greatly benefit African-American families. 

Meanwhile, the City is now poised to approve a request for $535 million in government funds for private development at Port Covington.  The project holds great potential for the city, but only if developed in an equitable way that ensures lasting and meaningful results for all of Baltimore’s residents. It’s ironic that the plan involves creating transportation opportunities for residents and workers in Port Covington, and that the developers for the project have recently announced plans to add “commuter services” to Baltimore’s tourism water taxis. This vision of transportation support in Baltimore leaves out the communities who need it most – African American communities who would have been directly aided by the Red Line.

In the wake of unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the creation of a committee focused on solutions for entrenched inequality in Baltimore. She named the commission “One Baltimore.”  A year later, Baltimore remains deeply divided and the most ambitious plan to create transportation mobility in the City has been shelved. 

Hopefully, the Department of Justice report and any resulting agreement with the City will bring meaningful policing reforms to Baltimore. But those reforms cannot produce true and lasting transformation unless we are prepared to take significant steps to address the deep and longstanding racial and socioeconomic investment imbalances in Baltimore.  If we don’t, the City will remain “Two Baltimores.” 

Ajmel Quereshi (@AjmelQuereshi) is an assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.