Half empty, half full

What African Amer­i­cans in Bal­ti­more have gained, and what re­mains


More than 50 years ago, inspired by words that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in a Birm­ing­ham church, I joined hun­dreds of other chil­dren in a civil rights march through the streets ofmy home town. I was not a brave child, and I knew, as the oth­ers did, the risk of go­ing to jail.

We marched, though, be­cause his words gave us hope that the world could be dif­fer­ent.

I am of­ten asked how much so­ci­ety has changed since the 1960s and how the chal­lenges we faced then com­pare with those of to­day.

My re­sponse re­flects my am­biva­lence about our progress. As a child, I could not have imag­ined that I would one day be­come the pres­i­dent of a pre­dom­i­nantly white re­search univer­sity, and I would not have guessed how many more peo­ple would have the op­por­tu­nity to be­come ed­u­cated. In 1960, less than 10 per­cent of Amer­i­cans had earned bach­e­lor’s de­grees. To­day, we’re up to nearly a third. In the same pe­riod, African Amer­i­cans have gone from a col­lege com­ple­tion rate of about 3 per­cent to al­most 20 per­cent, con­tribut­ing to the growth of a thriv­ing black mid­dle class.

How­ever, far too many fam­i­lies re­main stuck in poverty. For them, con­di­tions now are as bad as they were in the ’60s — if not worse. Drugs and guns, com­bined with dam­ag­ing public poli­cies, fuel a cy­cle of vi­o­lence and mass in­car­cer­a­tion. Many young peo­ple feel hope­less and be­trayed.

Post­sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion has be­come a re­quire­ment for many, if not most, of our so­ci­ety’s well-pay­ing jobs. How­ever, the re­cent gains in col­lege com­ple­tion are spread un­evenly. For ex­am­ple, since 1975, the per­cent­age of the wealth­i­est quar­ter of Amer­i­cans earn­ing four-year de­grees has jumped from 38 per­cent to 79 per­cent, while the per­cent­age for those at the bot­tom has barely moved, from 7 to 11 per­cent.

I am stunned and sad­dened by the growth of in­equal­ity in our so­ci­ety and the fact that many chil­dren have sim­ply stopped dream­ing about the fu­ture. Yet I also re­mind my­self how far we’ve come. If we don’t count our progress, we lose sight of the lessons we’ve learned, and we run the risk of los­ing hope.

Public poli­cies adopted in the 1960s and 1970s have helped so many of us. Land­mark leg­is­la­tion, in­clud­ing the Civil Rights Act, the Vot­ing Rights Act, the Ele­men­tary and Sec­ondary Ed­u­ca­tion Act and the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Act, strength­ened schools, ex­panded civil rights and helped many more peo­ple grad­u­ate from col­lege.

These changes were pos­si­ble be­cause Amer­i­cans dur­ing that pe­riod truly be­lieved that the world could be dif­fer­ent than it was.

To ad­dress the stub­born chal­lenges fac­ing our so­ci­ety to­day, we again need rea­sons to be­lieve that the world can change. We need hope.

I’d sug­gest we can find hope in a place that’s re­ceived con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion in re­cent weeks: Bal­ti­more. I’ve lived and worked here the past 40 years, and I see the many ways this re­gion re­flects the coun­try’s progress and its chal­lenges.

In the ’ 60s, we had not yet seen a woman of any race as mayor of Bal­ti­more (or al­most any other ma­jor U.S. city) or African Amer­i­cans in such lead­er­ship roles as chief ex­ec­u­tive of Bal­ti­more Gas & Elec­tric, or dean of the Univer­sity of Mary­land Med­i­cal School, or pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more. Now we see all of these, among many other African Amer­i­can lead­ers.

The Bal­ti­more re­gion is also pros­per­ous. A re­cent Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion anal­y­sis notes that it ranks sev­enth among the coun­try’s 35 largest metropoli­tan ar­eas in per capita in­come. It is sec­ond only to the Dis­trict in me­dian in­come for black house­holds. Black pro­fes­sion­als are do­ing well here.

Nev­er­the­less, the re­gion’s chal­lenges are sig­nif­i­cant. About 11 per­cent of Bal­ti­more City’s black res­i­dents are un­em­ployed, com­pared with about 5 per­cent of white res­i­dents, ac­cord­ing to the Brook­ings anal­y­sis. The city’s black poverty rate is just un­der 27 per­cent. While this is lower than the rate in three-quar­ters of large U.S. cities, such high poverty rates should be trou­bling to all of us.

The chal­lenge now is to re­flect on how we can ex­tend the gains of the past 50 years to even more Amer­i­cans. We have asked hard ques­tions like this be­fore. That alone should give us hope as we move for­ward in an ef­fort to bring the ben­e­fits of our na­tion’s pros­per­ity to all. We now have the op­por­tu­nity — in­deed, the re­spon­si­bil­ity — to look again at public poli­cies in such ar­eas as ed­u­ca­tion and job train­ing, hous­ing and trans­porta­tion, drug en­force­ment and in­car­cer­a­tion.

I of­ten think about the other chil­dren who marched in 1963. While we shared hopes and dreams, many of them never had the op­por­tu­ni­ties I did. Ul­ti­mately, they marched so that oth­ers could live their dreams.

Our chal­lenge now is hold­ing on to that legacy — and help­ing many more chil­dren turn pos­si­bil­i­ties into re­al­ity.

The writer is pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Mary­land Bal­ti­more County (UMBC) and au­thor of “Hold­ing Fast to Dreams: Em­pow­er­ing Youth from the Civil Rights Cru­sade to STEM Achieve­ment.”


Peo­ple at a rally led by faith lead­ers out­side city hall in Bal­ti­more in­May.

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