“I'm going to help the African Americans.” For months, Donald Trump has been saying this, as though we are a homogeneous group with a single shared experience — an experience of “living in hell.”
Trump hasn't exhibited any interest in detailing just what sort of “help” he plans to extend. But he has, through his narrative of black lives, marked the horrors of inner-city residence, suggested a very limited understanding of the black inner-city experience.
“Our inner cities are a disaster,” he said at the final debate on Wednesday night. “You get shot walking to the store. They have no education, they have no jobs.”
And then his promise: “I will do more for African Americans and Latinos than [Hillary Clinton] can ever do in ten lifetimes. All she has done is talk to the African Americans and to the Latinos.”
I live in Baltimore. I was raised here. It's easy to develop misconceptions about a city where shootings are happening near daily. But contrary to what Trump insists on repeating at far too many campaign stops, Baltimore’s inner city is no hellhole and the black residents living there don't need help from a faux-benevolent outsider who believes — without having taken so much as a walking tour — that their neighborhoods are doomed.
What’s really happening in “the inner city”
Nearly a year ago, I was granted the opportunity to experience something few residents of an embattled city do: I got to tell fair, even-handed stories about what it's like to live there. As part of a public media partnership called Localore: Finding America, I, along with 15 other audio and video producers, traveled to communities that are typically underrepresented on NPR or PBS. While some producers relocated from their home bases to produce their projects, I opted to stay right in Baltimore, to partner with the city’s smaller, predominantly black public radio station, WEAA at Morgan State University.
Reporting on Baltimore’s inner-city communities was as illuminating for me as it would've been if I'd come here from someplace else. I grew up in Baltimore County, the suburbs surrounding the city, and though I'd always spent time in city neighborhoods, I didn't fully appreciate their complexity. Many Americans hold similar, limited views of Baltimore City — especially those who only hear about it when it lands on a list of “cities that rank highest in homicide or poverty rate” or when its police department becomes the focus of a US Department of Justice investigation or when national media descends upon its downtown in the wake of a volatile, days-long protest.
A privileged outsider’s best chance of learning the nuances of black inner-city life is through visiting neighborhoods with long, rich histories. On storied Pennsylvania Avenue, where famous black singers and musicians played club dates in various theaters throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, not much in the way of high-end black entertainment remains. Upton, the neighborhood to which Pennsylvania Avenue’s elite history belongs, is now a high-poverty, low-income area still suffering the effects of the decades-long war on drugs. But it's also home to the only roller rink within city limits. Open since 1983, Shake and Bake Family Fun Center isn't just a place to skate. It offers summer day camp and employment opportunities to neighborhood children and teens — and it's a safe haven for families amid the area’s pockets of high crime.
Months after producing a podcast episode about Shake and Bake, Lor Scoota (born Tyriece Watson), a popular local rapper, was gunned down a few blocks from Morgan State, just after leaving an anti-violence rally at the university. Because he'd grown up across the street from Shake and Bake, hundreds of area residents congregated outside the rink to mourn him. They belted his lyrics, hopped on car hoods to dance, and held each other as they reminisced and wept.
The scene was relatively peaceful, but before long, more than a dozen police cars flanked the avenue to make sure it remained that way. Officers in riot gear formed a barrier line, urging the crowd to disperse. They did so without incident, but not before noting that, even in grief, they were subject to overpolicing. Even in peaceful protest against gun violence, they were being treated as though they were moments away from becoming perpetrators of it.
That Baltimore’s inner-city neighborhoods manage to maintain this sense of closeness and community, despite their right to peaceful assembly being challenged and their right to safe neighborhoods remaining woefully underprotected, is something of a miracle.
For every crime reported, there is a parent, a shop owner, an educator, a lender, an activist, or a student engaged in the work of crime prevention
Over the course of nine months reporting in Baltimore, I visited longstanding small businesses, a black-owned commercial bank, schools and extracurricular programs, the country’s first black history wax museum, a farmers market at the third-oldest urban public park in the country, and the offices of a black weekly newspaper that's more than 125 years old.
I can assure you that for every crime reported in the city of Baltimore, there is a parent, a shop owner, an educator, a lender, an activist, or a student engaged in the work of crime prevention. There is a conversation in a barber or beauty shop, at a park picnic table, inside a church, at a table in an anarchist bookstore, at the counter in a black-owned cafe, or on the marble stoop of a rowhome about how to further the work of anti-violence and black liberation.
In communities like Marble Hill and Reservoir Hill, residents have banded together to seek historical designations from city government to preserve the architecture of their rowhomes, churches, and other buildings, even through decades-long cycles of suburban flight and economic hardship.
Just last week, I visited the Eutaw Place home of a local pioneering black model, Carolyn Wainwright, for an interview. I wouldn’t have realized, if she hadn’t told me, that she and her husband had purchased the sprawling three-story rowhome for one dollar. Though built as a single-family residence, it had been split into five small apartments during the community’s lean times, and through gradual renovation, Wainwright’s family had restored it to its former grandeur.
In these areas of the city, where current residents are valiantly trying to attract new neighbors with stable income and an eye toward a more promising future, there is always something of the city’s former glory left to see, always potential left to imagine.
Baltimore does not need Donald Trump’s “help”
Those conversations and community-level investment often occur beyond the purview of national politicians. And sometimes, depending on who’s in office, the work of preserving black neighborhoods must also be sustained without much local government support. But Baltimore residents have always been engaged in the work of protecting themselves from the decades-long effects of bad drug and crime policy, discriminatory policing, intentionally segregated and neglected public housing, and underfunded schools.
They’ve always understood that black communities are worth preserving. It isn't hellish to grow up in neighborhoods and schools where you don't have to confirm for friends, family, and colleagues that systemic racism exists. The impact of it is shared and constant.
No one in Baltimore City is waiting for help from a presidential candidate whose platform relies on broad generalizations about their lived experience. What we are hoping for is a president who understands what already works well inner cities — and who’s committed to figuring out how to best support existing community efforts.
Stacia L. Brown is a writer in Baltimore. She blogs at stacialbrown.com.