Fundamentally flawed

March 01, 2004|By Salima Siler Marriott

AS A STATE legislator, social worker, teacher and African-American who grew up in Baltimore's segregated public housing, I followed with more than academic interest the court proceedings of Thompson et al vs. HUD et al - the case brought by 14,000 public housing families because of seven decades of government discrimination and segregation.

Their claim that both Baltimore City and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development continue to segregate them in concentrated poverty rings true.

Final arguments in the lawsuit, which was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, were heard in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Dec. 23.

Baltimore and HUD admitted what everyone knows: From the 1930s until 1954, when the Supreme Court declared government-sponsored segregation illegal, there existed an officially segregated system with black and white families separate, as per Jim Crow. In 1954, the Supreme Court declared that Baltimore's public housing system was inherently flawed - like a house built in a swamp that needs to be moved to higher ground.

But since 1954, public officials in charge of the system never fixed it. Content just to give poor African-Americans a roof over their heads, they spent millions maintaining and remodeling the old buildings or building new buildings virtually on top of the public housing already there, avoiding the controversies that would have accompanied putting public housing outside the poor African-American enclaves.

Fixing the segregated system would have required protecting African-American families who wanted to move to outlying formerly white projects such as O'Donnell Heights (which instead remained majority-white until the ACLU filed its lawsuit in the mid-1990s).

It would have meant siting some of the new public housing built in the past 50 years in integrated and white neighborhoods despite predictable public opposition.

It would have meant providing genuine counseling for families receiving housing vouchers so that they could - if they chose - live outside the pockets of poverty in which they had always lived. In short, fixing the flawed 1954 system would have meant more than just a roof over their heads. Public officials, by their own admission, did not do this.

I am not accusing my fellow government officials of being ill-willed or even racially biased. But, at best, both black and white officials continued doing business as usual knowing that it would preserve the racial status quo.

These were not bad public officials. But their decisions not to move the house to higher ground were bad, both legally and morally. So we are left with a public housing system that is still fundamentally flawed.

Some black elected officials argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with living in an all-black neighborhood. And that's true, but beside the point. I, too, have chosen to live in a virtually all-black neighborhood. But the government never gave public housing families the choice I had. And few, if any, black public officials have chosen to live in the neighborhoods where public housing families live.

As the House of Delegates chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families, I know the personal and tax-dollar costs of making families live in concentrations of poverty.

Housing policy is education policy, health policy, work force policy and criminal justice policy. Where we live determines almost everything about how we live.

We all pay for not fixing the old system. We know that we need to break up these pockets of racially identifiable poverty. Is it hard to do the right thing? Yes. Will there always be - at any given decision point - reasons not to do it? Sure. In fact, sometimes - as in Brown vs. Board of Education - it takes a court to require the elected branch of government to do the right thing.

It has been nearly 50 years since the Supreme Court decided in Brown vs. Board of Education that racial segregation is illegal.

This is the year to tackle what Herbert H. Lindsey, NAACP state president for Maryland, calls "the last frontier of the civil rights movement."

Salima Siler Marriott represents the 40th District and chairs the Baltimore City House delegation in the Maryland General Assembly.

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