The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do the roots of the racial economic gap run so deep that real solutions are out of reach?

The economic problems underlying the unrest in Baltimore have a long history, lawmakers were told. But a real solution could be far out of reach. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The economic problems confronting African Americans are staggering, and many of them are rooted in the nation's shameful racial history.

That is one takeaway from a Congressional Black Caucus meeting at the University of Baltimore on Tuesday, aimed at exploring the underlying causes of the April rioting that rocked Charm City in the wake of the suspicious death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

Another takeaway might be that any solutions that would match the scale of the economic disparities are politically out of reach.

The lawmakers, who were joined by several Democratic members of the Joint Economic Committee for a meeting at the University of Baltimore, heard from two panels of experts who explained that the racial economic gap extends back to slavery, winds through Jim Crow, redlining, restrictive covenants, subprime lending and more.

As illustrated in the charts above, the results are gaping disparities  in employment and wealth. As Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) noted, even now that the job market is finally returning to normal long after the recession, African American unemployment remains higher than the white rate was during the worst of the downturn.

The economic damage does not even take into account a legacy that has left some African American communities in the grip of endemic crime and hopelessness, the panel was told.

“The disparity is not the result of market forces,” said James H. Carr, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Its roots are in segregationist public policy.”

To really attack that gap, the panelists said, the nation would have to make an effort as sustained as the string of policies that contributed to the situation.

William H. “Sandy” Darity, a Duke University professor, said that the country should start with reparations to compensate African Americans, not just for slavery, but more so for the damage wrought by a century of state-sponsored segregation and racial exclusion. From there, the nation should establish “baby bonds” that would create a government-seeded trust fund for every newborn American. The money would grow over time and would be used later in life to pay for education or to start a business or buy a home. Finally, Darity said, the nation should create a permanent public works program to ensure that every adult who wants a job could have one.

“Deep structural inequalities require bold structural policies to achieve transformational change,” Darity explained.

All in all, it was an exercise in blue-sky thinking, some thought, given political reality. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said that it was still beneficial to talk through the issue, adding that some people thought “the Confederate flag would  never come down from the grounds of the South Carolina State House.” Now, in the wake of the massacre at a historic black church in Charleston, it looks like the flag is likely be removed.

Grass-roots activist Munir Bahar, who has led marches and works with young people in an effort to stem the violence that plagues Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, left unimpressed. When he talked to lawmakers, he urged them to get out in the streets more and to get away from all their talk of reports and graphs, government programs and voting. He said people on the street need  hope and help to find a new way of thinking and living.

“This was B.S.,” he said as he walked across a plaza on the University of Baltimore campus after the meeting. “This thing cost money. It would have been better spent directly on the people.”