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Connecting Black Neighborhoods to the Black Lives Matter Movement

How does hypersegregation and disinvestment contribute to police violence?

Rally in New York in support of Baltimore. (Photo: The All-Nite Images/CC BY-SA 2.0)

When Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor at Morgan State University, watched the reaction to the death of Freddie Gray, in the West Baltimore neighborhood Sandtown-Winchester, he couldn’t help thinking about what role the place played in Gray’s death.

Gray and William Porter, the police officer who was tried for his death, were born in the same year and grew up in the same neighborhood; Porter’s family left when he was still young.* The neighborhood in which Gray was assault was considered a high-crime area. How did that contribute to the behavior of the police officers?

“People aren’t living their lives outside a spatial context,” Brown says. “We’re part of the environments in which we live, play, work and pray.”

As he became active in Baltimore’s movement to address police brutality, Brown formulated a way of talking about how place can contribute to the danger to black lives. He put it this way at a recent community hearing on a controversial development project: “As we say black lives matter, we also have to say black neighborhoods matter.” Segregation and police violence, he says, “are interrelated.”

“Black lives can only be contextualized by understanding the places in which people live.”

He’s not alone in making that connection. Academics, activists and advocates are looking at how disinvestment in black neighborhoods exacerbates the dangers identified by the Black Lives Matter movement and others fighting police violence. Or, to put it another way: What about the neighborhoods in which police violence takes place might contribute to the danger to black lives?

National Guard in Baltimore. (Photo: The National Guard/Public domain)

For decades now, in major metropolitan areas across the country, many of those places have been characterized by what two sociologists termed “hypersegregation,” with black and white people distributed unevenly among neighborhoods and African Americans very likely to live in predominantly black neighborhoods, clustered together in space.

Last year, weighing those factors along with two other key indices, Douglas Massey, one of the sociologists who originally coined the term, and his colleague Jonathan Tannen identified hypersegregated cities in America from the 1970s to 2010. Overall, the number of hypersegregated places has decreased since the 1970s. But Massey and Tannen still identified 21 metro areas where hypersegregation was evident, based on 2010 census data.

The most strongly hypersegregated cities were Baltimore, Birmingham, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, St. Louis. In their paper, Massey and Tannen argued that “it is perhaps no coincidence” that people in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, staged dramatic protests after the death of Michael Brown and the National Guard took over the area. “We can continue to expect a disproportionate share of the nation’s racial conflicts and disturbances to occur within these intensely segregated landscapes,” the sociologists wrote.

In Baltimore, for instance, most police officers are white, and many live outside the city. “The underbelly of it all, in many ways, is the assumptions that police are making about the type of people that live in certain neighborhoods,” say Brown. “I don’t think you can fix policing without fixing these more endemic factors.”

Despite the decrease in hypersegregation, though, there are still systemic factors limiting investment and mobility in black neighborhoods. In a couple of recent studies, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which promotes economic justice and the flow of capital to underserved communities, looked at home mortgage lending in Baltimore, St. Louis and a couple of other cities. Within Baltimore and St. Louis, race was a determining factor for who received mortgages—lenders were less likely to originate mortgages for properties in black neighborhoods.

Here’s what the map of Baltimore lending looks like:

Home lending activity in Baltimore. (Image: National Community Reinvestment Coalition)

The green indicates the black percentage of the population in each area: darker green neighborhoods have a higher percentage of black people. The purple bubbles indicate home buying activities from 2011 to 2013. 

There’s a clear disparity between the lending going on in predominantly black neighborhood and predominantly white neighborhoods, and while income plays a role, NCRC analysis found the race also helped determine where banks made loans. In black neighborhoods, the organization found, there were not as many bank branches to begin with—there’s no place where you can even talk to someone about getting a mortgage. But even if there were, the chance someone living in a predominantly black neighborhood would receive a mortgage is significantly less than in a working class white neighborhood.

This type of discrimination compounds economic and social disparities, and contributes to the hypersegregation of cities, by limiting mobility for people living in black neighborhoods. It also limits the creation of wealth in these neighborhoods: homeownership and the creation of small businesses depend on access to credit. These trends look segregation in place and contribute to tensions between the people who live in black neighborhoods and police.

“The segregated environment is a recipe for this sort problem,” says Bruce Mitchell, NCRC’s senior research analyst. “Both the grinding poverty and the resentment that breeds over the long term—those are historical factors that I don’t think we’ve come to terms with.”

And this type of disparity among neighborhoods is what activists like Brown are trying to call attention to and change. When I say black neighborhoods matter, one thing I mean is: let’s address disinvestment,” says Brown.

The Movement for Black Lives platform, a collaboratively written series of policy proposals released this week, addresses some of these issues in its Economic Justice section. It calls for a reauthorization of affordable housing funding at the federal level, as well as a realignment of federal development incentives for housing and other infrastructure towards fair development. The platform also calls for state governments to end discriminatory credit policies, like the ones identified by NCRC.

In this formulation, increasing investment and fair development in black neighborhoods is just one plank in the platform. But it is possible that it’s the keystone to tranforming the relationship between people in black neighborhoods and the police.