…the past always speaks as an oracle; only as master builders of the future who know the present will you understand it.”

Towards a new consensus.

Dan Sparaco
Mar 5, 2016 · 9 min read

Everyone is talking about how important they think the upcoming election is. A defining moment, a “crucial crossroads,” the most important election in a generation, etc., etc.

When people say this they are making reference to the riots — that one night in April when people inclined to refer to those events as the unrest were reminded to be shocked by the disparities they drive by and step over every day. April laid bare the true state of our city and made its disparities once again unavoidable. In fact, we can barely stop talking about them. Extreme poverty, spatial segregation, racial injustice. It was unimaginable before April that these things would come to define the terms of the 2016 election, as it was unimaginable that Sandtown-Winchester would appear on the cover of the New York Times. April changed all that. And now the coming election has become a referendum on what we plan to do about all that we cannot ignore.

But the number of times the candidates have had to remind us that this is a defining moment reveals a deeper suspicion — that we are not ready to rise to it. We’ve done little to respond to the cogent political analysis the streets presented to us last April. It was a critique that exposed existing institutions as fundamentally unaware of what it means to be poor and black in Baltimore, and exposed their interventions as a confused mish-mash of partial efforts and well-meaning failures. It was a critique that revealed the utter disarray and disunity of our major institutions — City Hall, Police Headquarters, and North Avenue on the one hand, the foundation community, the churches, the business community and the anchor institutions on the other. Never have so many people with so much influence been so unable to exert it as right now. It’s as if we’ve been in a state of suspended animation since April.

This is more than just election year paralysis, or the consequences of a lame-duck mayoralty. Its a more fundamental destabilization, and symptoms abound. An establishment that would have long ago rallied behind one mayoral candidate has been stripped of its decisive influence. The polls show an electorate fractured across a variety of candidates, six of whom at least will get enough votes from some cross-section of city residents to assure that victory can be had with just 20,000 votes in a city of 620,000 people. The winds of a “change election” have not emerged to clarify the situation, in part thanks to the Democratic establishment’s decision to move the primary date and force the insurgents to campaign through Thanksgiving and Christmas and then the snow and cold of the dead of winter, when before they’d have this coming spring, summer and fall to get their message out. Perhaps it is a change election, but not if one means a change of personnel, at least not until one of the next-generation candidates makes inroads with the primary electorate, or until our very own Michael Bloomberg shows he can split the difference between experience and change. Right now, it’s the experienced pols — each in the game for well over two decades — that collectively command 55% of primary voters. And one of them may very well be the best choice for a city on the brink. But whomever receives the most votes, it is not clear that anyone will have won this election.

For a lot of us it feels like a city that’s had “potential” for decades is further now than ever from realizing it, and our uncertainty stems from this fact: last April blew apart the political consensus that has governed Baltimore for the past five decades. That consensus emerged after the city last rioted in 1968, and was the second stage of the city’s now century-long effort to manage and contain the consequences of its original sin: the destruction of its own black middle class.

The seeds of the rioting we’ve now seen twice in our streets were sown at the turn of the Twentieth Century when a city that could not tolerate the existence of black lawyers and black teachers daring to live like their white peers cut at itself like a mentally ill patient beset by an imaginary disease in order to cut them out. The city cut itself with zoning laws meant to corral black people away from whites, with racial covenants meant to do the same when the Supreme Court outlawed the zoning, and then with mortgage redlining that destroyed the possibility of black wealth creation and led to the wholesale destruction of center-city neighborhoods whose gorgeous housing stock and wide boulevards, once occupied by the wealthy and white, would come to lay like a noose around downtown. In this stage, from the 1910s until the 1960s, blacks had little recourse to power and the white establishment was free to manage The Negro Problem as it saw fit. Let’s call this consensus period “The Hate.”

By the 1960s demographics combined with rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the leadership of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. to force the hand of that governing consensus. Black votes — and the coalescence of a black establishment in what was once the Fourth Councilmanic District, with its heart at the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor — demanded attention from political institutions dominated by whites who now needed those votes to get elected. There was a moment, however brief, when the convergence of progressive white leadership and a nascent black establishment, bolstered by federal anti-poverty dollars, might have led to a multiracial government and a multiracial agenda. But that hope died when King was gunned down, and the riots that followed led to a new consensus founded upon the containment and management of black political interests for as long as possible, until an orderly transition of political power from whites to blacks could take place. Let’s call this consensus period, which ran from 1971 until just last year, “The Deal.”

The first consensus, and then the next, were designed to paper over and contain an anger and a despair that would be their undoing — although both the nature of that containment, and its undoing, would be different in each case.

It was obvious by 1968 that the anger from decades of violent, legalized exclusion of black people from the city’s political, economic, and social life could at any moment pour into the streets. (Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission virtually predicted it would.)

As for April 2015, perhaps the precursors were less obvious, but this is only because The Deal was premised on a more sophisticated balance of power — not 1950s-style discrimination — and a subtle agreement about certain topics that we, as a city, would not discuss. The Deal, after all, emerged so that the agitation of the Civil Right Movement could be brought to a close, and the trauma of the ’68 riots cauterized. It was designed to end, not carry forward, the fight against segregated schools and housing, and the fight for transportation access and economic opportunity. The structural isolation of black people would, by and large, be left in place, and the obstacles to black opportunity would persist right up to last April when we had to be reminded of them once again.

Thus the difference between April 1968 and April 2015 is the difference between water in a kettle put to boil and the smoldering embers left behind from a fire not quite put out. The Hate intentionally created the circumstances of its own undoing by trying to stamp out black life. The Deal was upended by an anger and despair born not of overt hatred but from helpless abandonment and turned backs.

The essential terms of the post-’68 consensus did not change with a black mayor, and indeed the contours of The Deal were struck with the understanding that the black establishment would eventually, and inevitably, inherit the city. The avoidance of the original sin would continue, less from an unwillingness to acknowledge it and more from the lack of capital to act. What was taken off the table because fear, racism, and a lack of will when William Donald Schaefer became mayor in 1971 could not be put back on the table when Kurt Schmoke became mayor in 1987 for lack of power, political capital, and money. Any appetite to right historic wrongs would be hamstrung by middle class flight from the city and the city’s increasing political isolation from its regional neighbors keen to keep the status quo of black poverty in place (or at least, out of their counties). Indeed it was in the era of Schmoke’s rise to mayor that Jessie Jackson ran for president on the belief that cities had already become too powerless to address the fate of black people living in them.

If there was any question that the limited détente of The Deal could be amended to pursue actual racial justice it was answered in the negative when Mayor Schmoke made his prophetic call to end the war on drugs. It created controversy, and an intriguing policy debate, but could do nothing to stem the coming tide of black bodies incarcerated in jails and prisons for drugs. Perennially cash-strapped, to retain federal funds for policing our black-led city would itself have to participate in this catastrophe and add its own citizens to that tide.

Further confirmation that black leadership could not, on its own, change the terms of the post-‘68 consensus would come later, in Sandtown-Winchester itself, when Mayor Schmoke in concert with the developer James Rouse would spend $130 million there in the 1990s, to no clear benefit. It was a valiant but doomed effort, and a reminder that within the limits of the governing consensus, we would live with, manage, and make occasional interventions in the problems of Sandtown, but we would not — could not — confront head on the overwhelming challenges created by the forces set in motion almost a century earlier, at the time of Baltimore’s original sin.

None of this is to deny that many people of good will, in power and out, in public and in the quiet, have made their own valiant efforts against the disparities of our city. But there is only one lesson to be drawn from April and its dysfunctional aftermath: we have failed.

Our political establishment’s collective shock at the news of life in Sandtown-Winchester, delivered by our young people in the streets last year, should make it obvious that the limits on our political imagination, crafted in the post-’68 consensus, remain in place. The belated appearance of this neighborhood and those like it on the state and local political agenda merely indicates that this consensus is in shambles, unable to limit the terms of debate (just as it has been unable to limit the number of mayoral candidates). The fact that the discussion has shifted hardly guarantees that we as a city are ready to face, and then do something about, all the things we refused to discuss not so long ago.

From the collective shock of last April we have entered a period of transition not unlike one that came about in the 1960s, as one political consensus fractured and another began to take shape. In that transition there was, for a fleeting moment, the possibility of a new and fundamentally different governing coalition, one with a new composition, a new language, and a new framework through which it would have been possible to face the original sin and heal what the riots of fifty years ago exposed.

Five decades after the city last rioted, in the midst of another transitional period of uncertainty, it is now or never for Baltimore to get right with its past and reclaim the alternate future it left behind a century ago, an alternate future that remained buried under the political consensus that just disintegrated. This is the moment to transform the riots, not into the euphemism of “the unrest,” or the romanticism of “the uprising,” but into a new and durable consensus that can found meaningful political action. And this is the necessary agenda of whomever should win the mayoral election.

To build the new consensus we must first to go back to the ascent of William Donald Schaefer, who witnessed the transitional moment of possibility of the 1960s, and with whom The Deal began.

Part 2 can be found here.

Dan Sparaco

Written by

Dan is an attorney and recovering bureaucrat in Baltimore City. He can be reached at dansparaco@gmail.

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