President Trump’s comments that Baltimore is dangerous and rat-infested are more than just words. They retraumatize the very communities that have suffered for generations under a system designed to segregate and take economic power from black neighborhoods and low-income neighborhoods—most of them places where families once thrived.
While it’s tempting to express moral outrage, we want to explain how Trump’s invective hurts—not just the people of West Baltimore and other neighborhoods like it—but all of us who want a better, healthier, more sustainable and equitable future.
Each American city—and many rural areas, too—have a story like that of West Baltimore—areas or entire communities that were cut off by the building of highways, “redlined” and denied access to loans and investment, and purposely segregated by policies and planning.
Like so many of these neighborhoods—think Watts, Newark, North Memphis, Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans and Oakland, as well as many others—historic West Baltimore was once a vital cultural center. That was before “urban renewal” and massive government-supported suburban expansion that precluded African-American participation.
Is Trump aware that studies show that such policies encouraged the withholding of credit from immigrant communities and neighborhoods of people of color, relegating the areas to decades of economic struggle or destroying them outright with the building of roads, freeways or polluting industries? Examples of the latter include Spokane, Washington, where the I-90 construction devastated and divided the East Central neighborhood; Richmond, VA, where largely African-American neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for I-95; and Washington, D.C., where thousands were displaced by a parkway in Southwest. In Washington today, the net worth of white households is 81 times that of black households.
Systemic issues with long-term effects
A recent national analysis of areas redlined to discourage loans and investment, in fact, shows “a pervasive, enduring structure of economic disadvantage.” Overall, according to researchers at Duke University, blacks constitute around 13 percent of the population but own less than 3 percent of the wealth, largely due to the long history of lack of access to resources and wealth accumulation over time. And, relatedly, the vast majority of African-Americans live in counties in violation of air pollution standards.
These are residents of communities that have experienced historical trauma, and now—with tweets from a president—they are experiencing it again.
What researchers are increasingly realizing about trauma is that it can be a collective phenomenon, resulting in a loss of basic trust; aggression, fear, and anger; feelings of shame; apathy and isolation; and an “us” versus “them” narrative. That includes traumas created by policies that result in abusive, racist or unsafe systems that cause hardship often on a long-term continuous basis.
Acknowledgement, truth and treating those involved with dignity can go a long way in addressing trauma. Failing to address it can result in severe social consequences—much like those we see in neighborhoods like West Baltimore.
This should be enough to disabuse us of the idea that if people in such communities just got more education or worked harder they could solve their own problems. The truth is that where you grow up is a strong predictor of your future success. That matters for economic success, yes, but also for your chances of being exposed to environmental contaminants and hazards, and for suffering from physical and mental health issues and stress.
Investment and opportunity
Data shows that the majority of Americans support investment to help people rise from poverty, including everything from expanded access to health services and public transit to preparing for extreme weather events, creating more green space and parks, and building more affordable places to live. Additionally, that investment—with community buy-in—should not result in the displacement of those who have stuck it out as their spirit of close neighborhood ties and entrepreneurship suffered.
Social inequities hurt everyone. They threaten the nation’s financial health, exacerbate climate vulnerability, and breed social divisions in which low-income and immigrant communities are blamed for their own as well as the nation’s ills, creating distrust and potential anti-black and anti-immigrant violence. As Dr. Martin Luther King put it, such inequities reduce our moral stature at home and abroad.
What Americans instinctively understand is that the opposite is also true. When all communities thrive, all of us as people thrive.
Yes, Trump’s outburst is a blow—almost in a physical sense, as emotional trauma can be. It strikes out at those who have long struggled to overcome ignorance about the human value in disinvested neighborhoods. But for many in America’s communities, it only fuels the struggle for inclusion and dignity for themselves and the next generation.