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Can Black Men “Save” Baltimore?

Has anyone ever posed this question? A few months ago, a cover article in the Baltimore City Paper asked “Can Station North Save the City?” with a subheader suggesting that some believe the neighborhood’s emerging arts culture can help solve “many of the city’s most intractable problems.” The question they are really asking is: Can young, white middle class artists revitalize a disinvested, historically Black neighborhood?

The answer to that question is probably yes. But saving Baltimore?

While the tech and creative classes bring a level of vibrancy to cities, hipster trickle down theory has proven not to engender broad based prosperity, and likely increases municipal inequality.

So if not the techies, hipsters, and creatives, what then? There is no single panacea for effecting widespread prosperity in Baltimore, but there is something that should be prioritized; namely, dismantling structural racism, as recently suggested by Laurie Bezold. And given Baltimore’s unique and complex racial history, it really begins and ends with the fight for equity and social justice for its impoverished and working class Black residents.

I recently spent several days in Miami with over 50 black male leaders, community builders, and social entrepreneurs from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Detroit. It’s clear to me that these men–and others like them–are essential to their cities fulfilling their promise. However, these men and their communities are largely ignored–if not outright demonized and criminalized.

Take, for example, the ACLU’s War on Marijuana in Black and White report, which demonstrates that the drug war is wasteful, damaging, and “inherently racist in its execution.” The men gathered in Miami know first-hand the results of the drug war, and many of them work tirelessly to mitigate the negative impact it has had on the communities where they live and serve. In Baltimore City, 92 percent of all marijuana arrests are black, and over $30 million annually is spent on marijuana enforcement, during an era of rec center closures, increased funding for youth detention facilities, and a looming $20 million budget shortfall. Were it up to the men and women gathered in Miami, resources applied to marijuana enforcement and youth detainment would be reallocated to make investments in education, economic development, and recreation.

Unfortunately, structural racism renders these men and women (and their communities) as invisible, or problematic, or both; they are seen as problems that require solving, or “saving.” For Baltimore–an overwhelmingly Black city recently described by the Baltimore Business Journal as an island of poverty–to realize its potential, we need to prioritize social and economic development policies that result in equity, access, and increased social and political capital for its Black working class majority.

In other words, we should acknowledge Black Baltimore as an integral asset to fostering widespread prosperity and vibrancy throughout Baltimore City.


The President’s Take on Race in America

April Yvonne Garrett authored a thoughtful response to President Obama’s remarks on the death of Trayvon Martin. Like Garrett, I fail to be as moved by the President’s remarks as many of my peers, though I desperately want to be moved. But I agree with Ta-nehisi Coates that the President’s remarks are significant— for the first time in our history, we have a President able to not only empathize, but experience the anguish expressed by large swaths of black Americans.

Still, we–and I don’t simply mean black Americans–deserve more. Charles Ogletree, President Obama’s esteemed Harvard University law professor, reminds us that Barack Obama is not president of Black America, but a President who happens to be black. This is a disappointing assessment, as it defines racism and racial inequality as issues only of concern to the African-American community, and not as far-reaching evils that retard America’s potential of becoming a more perfect union.

A few passages I’d like to highlight from the President’s speech:

There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store.  That includes me.  There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.  That happens to me — at least before I was a senator.  There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.  That happens often.


I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.


Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.  It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society.  It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated.  But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues.  And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

While it’s true that personal attitudes on race have evolved for the better over time, we continue to perpetuate (and justify) racial inequities by codifying prejudices into public policy. Stop-and-frisk programs, for example, ensure that suspicion will always follow black men, the sort of suspicion President Obama laments in his remarks. It’s one thing to ask Americans to be introspective on matters of race, it’s another thing entirely to challenge and condemn racialized (racist) public policies.

Even the 2003 Illinois racial profiling legislation authored by then state Senator Barack Obama–and referenced in his recent remarks–focused much more on racial biases potentially held by individual law enforcement officers. Now, however, President Obama praises the man described by Ta-nehisi Coates as the “proprietor of the largest local racial profiling operation in the country.”

President Obama had an opportunity to not only revisit America’s “difficult” and ugly past, but to address its troubling present. How can we ask the American people to wring themselves of bias, when the state continues to sanction it?

Confessions of an Angry Black Man

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” – James A. Baldwin

Several years ago, when I was a lowly $10 an hour research assistant and occasional freelancer for the Baltimore City Paper, I was robbed at gunpoint on my walk over to City Paper’s Park Avenue office.

Like every young black male raised in an urban setting, I was inculcated to have a healthy suspicion and disinterest (downright distrust) of anything affiliated to “criminal justice” and had no desire to alert the police of the incident. After much cajoling by my editors (and of course, my darling mother) I called the police. I joined the officers in a quick sweep of the area during which they posed a fascinating question:

“Son, are you sure this wasn’t the result of a drug deal gone bad?”

And of course, it wasn’t, and I stated as much. An interrogation of sorts followed. It required great effort to keep my wits about me, to remain calm. This exchange was the very reason I had no desire to alert the police. Afterward, I described the exchange to my editor, and she posed a most innocent question:

“Did you tell them you work here?”

As if the profession of cultural and political journalism obscured my being young, black and male, with all of the assumptions and perceptions being young, black and male can bring forth in the minds of some–rather, far too many.

I bring this up to make clear I’m an angry black male. And, I would argue, I’ve every right to be. Like many of my peers– be they young and black, or female, or gay, or some other “other,” or even some combination– I spend a great deal of time making (for me) white people feel comfortable in my presence– some might say I go as far as to assuage white guilt, on occasion. It takes a psychological toll. While I’m generally a gregarious and outward personality, lived experience and even a modicum of consciousness suggests that I should not be so… congenial. When you must navigate the type of professional waters I navigate, being labeled as “angry” and “black” is a devastating blow. Of course, it begs the question: “Why shouldn’t I be angry?”

Much of my work brings me to the intersection of philanthropy and communities of color. For the past year, I’ve worked on a rather ambitious effort to celebrate and resource African American men working to bring positive change to their communities. I was struck, when one such man, commenting on philanthropy and grant-making as it relates to his efforts, said that while he and his peers might not be “certified” to lead transformative efforts within their communities, that they were certainly “qualified.”

It struck me because these men are intimately a part of their communities, and yet, they spend great time negotiating for resources from institutions as far removed from their communities as possible. And while their anger is demonstrable to me, it is often expressed as skepticism and weariness of philanthropic institutions instead. For what reason should these men not express anger? Do these men have no right to say, “Provide your resources and then follow my lead?”

According to Open Society Foundations and the Foundation Center, foundations contributed $29 million to programs exclusively focused on African American men and boys in 2010–or less than one-­tenth of 1 percent of the $45.7 billion awarded by American grant-making institutions that year. Still, $29 million appears to be an exceptionally high figure–but how does it compare, for example, to the material costs of incarcerating nearly 850,000 black men across the nation? Would that one-tenth of 1 percent increase substantially if more black men and women were positioned as gatekeepers and true decision-makers?

I would suspect so–but why listen to me; I’m just another angry black guy.

Philanthropy, Power and Race

Last week, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers’ Annual Meeting and 30 Year Anniversary, punctuated by a keynote from the brilliant Lucy Bernholz, self-described “philanthropy wonk” and historian. The focus of the annual meeting was on shaping the next 30 years of philanthropy in Baltimore.

30 years from now, I’ll be a few weeks short of my fifty-ninth birthday, much closer in age to the typical professional philanthropist of today–perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but likely not by much. When Bernholz noted that Baltimore will be blacker and browner in 2043 than it is today–Baltimore is already 64 percent African-American–I couldn’t help but notice that the audience was overwhelmingly white and middle-aged (and older). This is not a critique of ABAG, but an overall observation of institutional philanthropy, generally, and society at large; political clout, policy influence and philanthropic capital deployed to affect the lives of black and brown people is by and large concentrated and held in the hands of white, middle-class Boomers.

Is this really a problem? I believe so. Baltimore, as an example, is not a region devoid of exceptionally intelligent, entrepreneurial and credentialed (philanthropy loves its credentials…) black and brown people with the passion, savvy and empathy (if not lived experience) to help solve the big problems faced by thousands of Baltimoreans. And I understand that the philanthropy industry is trying to become more inclusive and diverse, but as an outside observer, I’d like to see less trying, and I’m not quite sure what’s so difficult to begin with…

Over the next 30 years, I hope we’re no longer reinforcing and perpetuating traditional power dynamics; I’m hopeful that 30 years from now, celebrating 60 years of excellence, the individuals convened at that lovely ballroom look a lot different–and Baltimore, all of Baltimore–is on the upswing.

The Futility of Philanthropy in the Face of Policy

The tenuous relationship between public policy and philanthropy is best personified in the form of billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, known as much for his charitable largesse as he is for his attempts to ban soda.

Mayor BloombergMichael Bloomberg recently launched an “innovative public-private partnership” between New York City, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ashoka Changemakers, and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement at the Open Society Foundation to “reduce the disparities holding back too many young black and Latino men.”

It all sounds rather noble, but then you’re reminded that Mayor Bloomberg has supported (explicitly racist) public policies such as “stop and frisk” police strategies that do nothing but hold back young black and Latino men–and a $36,000 grant will do nothing to prevent innocent young black and Latino men from experiencing state-sanctioned racial profiling, nor will it curtail the nearly 40,000 marijuana arrests made annually in New York City–again, mostly young black and Latino men.

Before crowdsourcing ideas to reduce disparities, Mayor Bloomberg should first put an end to his disparity reinforcing policies–he doesn’t need philanthropy to do that.

Baltimore: A Startup Hotbed of Another Kind?

Andrew Zaleski has an excellent, sober commentary on Baltimore’s status as a “startup hotbed.” 410 Labs founder Dave Troy reminded me of Matt Yglesias’ three-month old post on local governments and tech startups when he points out on the Baltimore Tech Facebook group that,

There’s no city town or burgh not experiencing some kind of “tech renaissance” with startups, angel culture starting to bubble, collaboration, etc. I see it everywhere in the world, from here to Moscow to China. (When current and former communist countries get into the act, you know it’s happening everywhere.)

Yglesias recognizes there is room for tech outside of the traditional startup hubs, but argues that “if every civic leader in America focuses on this goal simultaneously they’re each going to accomplish very little.” Instead, he argues that state and local officials “should look more closely at what assets they already have and what those assets need to thrive.” This runs counter to attempts to get Baltimore’s political and business leadership to champion tech entrepreneurship throughout the city.

Baltimore has as many things going for it as it does things working against it, including dwindling population, persistent unemployment and lackluster schools. Of course, these intractable challenges can be seen as opportunities as well–talk about entrepreneurs solving real problems. Every time I step foot inside of a government agency, I imagine how technology can revolutionize the delivery and efficiency of social services–and how doing so can potentially make someone a pretty penny.

Case in point: software company Social Solutions, which designs software that helps nonprofits document and manage their efforts and outcomes in great detail. Three years prior to Millennial Media’s IPO (and before it considered leaving the city because of parking constraints) Social Solutions was a 90 person company that was quickly outgrowing its offices in the Emerging Technology Center. After a $6.5 million round of investment, it left the city for Middle River and continues its growth.

The founders at Social Solutions filled a need–utilizing technology to better allow social service nonprofits to execute on their missions–and found themselves experiencing great growth and profit. Baltimore is a great petri dish for a company like Social Solutions–and there’s more room for companies like it to follow.

The Baltimore City Public School System, for example, has a $1.3 billion budget–and isn’t even in the top-30 of largest school districts in the country. A savvy entrepreneur could solve problems for a multi-billion public education market with technology advances–just as Social Solutions has done for nonprofits. There’s potential for the same to be done for the billions spent locally in social and human services.

It might not be as sexy as mobile and web apps–but what’s better than solving “real problems” and experiencing exponential growth as a company?

Merry Christmas: Race, Guns and Mental Illness

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I woke up to some devastating news on this Christmas Eve: Black youth account for nearly 85 percent of teens charged as adults in the Baltimore region. Of course, today is as good a day as any to bring attention to this largely ignored issue. We ignore and accept this unfortunate reality because, by and large, African Americans (particularly black men) are still viewed as violent threats to society.

Following the Sandy Hook tragedy, we’ve started a (better, slightly more nuanced) dialogue about gun violence and mental illness, but we’ve sidestepped an essential truth about gun violence in America: it is unequally distributed and young black and Hispanic men residing in inner cities bear the brunt of its consequences. In 2008 and 2009, the leading cause of death among young black men was gun homicide–at a rate 8 times higher than young white men. And, yes, most homicides of young black men are perpetrated by other black men, but intraracial homicide is not unique to the African American community–something we have a tendency to forget.

As argued by Michele Goodwin, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, there is a public health dimension of gun violence that we must confront. Through this lens, it can be argued that there is no greater epidemic as it relates to gun violence than in our inner cities. Philadelphia magazine recently reported that Philadelphians suffer similar psychological trauma as people in Afghanistan and Rwanda, trauma that can produce people who are “emotionally numb” and “indifferent to the value of life.” It’s a vicious cycle that precipitates more violence.

In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, we’ve been afforded an opportunity to reflect upon mental illness and gun violence more vigorously and intelligently than before; let’s not forget to explore the (visibly) invisible racial dimensions as well, and how psychological trauma contributes to everyday acts of violence in our cities.