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Brandon Scott Inherits Divides That Existed Long Before Pandemic

The office of Mayor Brandon M. Scott

Baltimore’s long-established divides, made even worse by the coronavirus pandemic, stretch before the Brandon Scott administration.

The ongoing threat of the pandemic coupled with the cold of winter, systemic inequality and the city’s brutal homicide rates are but a few of the issues that Mayor Scott, who took office Tuesday, and the rest of the new roster of City Hall officials face.

“There is good news on the horizon: the promise of a vaccine,” Dr. Leana Wen, the city’s former health commissioner and visiting professor at George Washington University, said in an interview.

But the vaccine  likely will be distributed in waves, meaning the winter still will be defined by the pandemic, she said.

Wen said the single most important thing policymakers can do to curb new cases is stress the dangers of informal gatherings, where the virus has been shown to spread. 

Leaders like Scott should “make the point that if we want our businesses to stay open, we have to be really cautious in our home lives,” she said. “And that includes not getting together indoors with anyone who's not in our immediate household.”

Black Americans have borne the brunt of the pandemic  — and in places like majority-Black Baltimore, Wen said, it’s crucial that leaders redouble their efforts to close public health gaps.

Scott said he’s unafraid to follow in the footsteps of former mayor Jack Young and implement tighter restrictions than Gov. Hogan, who sets statewide regulations but allows local leaders to tighten them within their jurisdiction.

That means making decisions that save lives and protect the local economy, Scott said.

“The guidance of the public health professionals will be setting for us what we're going to be considering, be it closing indoor dining, ending sports programs, hookah bars and lounges, all of these kinds of things that we know are risky,” he said.

He said he will retain two high profile city employees, Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa and Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. Both were appointed by former mayor Catherine Pugh.

Scott’s plan to combat gun violence involves studying the flow of guns into the city and implementing a group violence reduction strategy to target the "small group of people committing violence against another small group of people."

It also requires bolstering social services, Scott said.

"That means looking at how we deal with substance abuse, trauma, housing opportunity, especially for those that we know are living in the neighborhoods where the violence is," Scott said.

The pandemic has worsened divides that stretch back to 1910, when Baltimore passed the nation’s first racial zoning codes that locked certain racial groups out of certain neighborhoods and circumscribed opportunity by geography and race.

The legacy of those boundary lines are still visible today in what scholar Lawrence Brown has conceptualized as the Black Butterfly: Black communities in Baltimore along the city’s East and West sides that face structural gaps in health and wealth.

Brown, a visiting professor at the University Wisconsin-Madison, said there are several ways Scott can indicate that he’s serious about closing these gaps within his first 100 days in office,

In 2018, Scott, then a City Councilman, introduced and passed legislation to create an equity assessment program that requires all city agencies to operate through a lens of equity, meaning they are expected to develop policies, practices and strategic investments to reverse disparity trends based on race, gender or income.

Brown said Scott could take that legislation further by requiring the Baltimore Office of Equity and Civil Rights to analyze whether the agencies are abiding by the law, rather than have the agencies themselves.

“I think if you let departments hold themselves accountable to whether or not they've been equitable, you're going to end up with a lot of bias,” Brown said.

Scott could push the issue that the city itself needs to examine its own complicity in causing inequity, Brown said. Past mayors, including James Preston and John Barry Mahool, vigorously created and enforced racial zoning codes in the twentieth century.

“When he becomes mayor, he has to look at the role of the mayor itself,” Brown said. “ If the mayor doesn't work to undo a Baltimore apartheid, then it ain't going nowhere.”

Roger Hartley, the dean of the College of Public Affairs, said Scott may be able to lean on the incoming Biden administration for urban renewal funding that the Trump administration did not offer.

“Strong mayors are those that can work with an incoming administration and bring federal dollars to the city through the agencies that disperse it,” Hartley said. “And so one of the biggest opportunities for this mayor is to have a strong intergovernmental relations group that can lobby the new president and the agencies to bring funding to the city of Baltimore in housing, in health.”

Scott can further demonstrate commitment to equity by using his new office’s broad financial power to ensure federal dollars go toward its communities, rather than previous federal grantees like Port Covington, Brown said.

“When you bring money into a hyper-segregated city, the problem is the money doesn't get to the people living in redlined Black communities,” Brown said. “That's the issue.”

Scott said he wants to turn the legacy of disinvestment on its head by ensuring that every city agency properly invests its  resources in Black Butterfly neighborhoods.

“When you look at everything bad about Baltimore, it happens in those neighborhoods, and that’s because we know the disinvestment that has been there,” Scott said.

He’s also adamant that he’s not a savior. Wiping away the legacy of redlining will not happen immediately or even in four years, Scott said. “But someone has to be the person willing to put the bricks at the foundation of a better city. That's what this term is about.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.