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The reactions to Trump’s tweets show that the “Diverter in Chief” has effectively derailed the conversation around Baltimore City, and has allowed establishment Democrats to avoid their own culpability in the segregation and poverty in our cities

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TAYA GRAHAM Once again, President Donald Trump has caused a figurative a firestorm by lashing out at an African American politician, but he didn’t stop there. In a series of tweets attacking Congressman Elijah Cummings, he also singled out his district, which includes Baltimore. Trump’s missive was aimed at Cummings’s role as Chairman of the House Oversight Committee in a series of critical hearings he held on the conditions at the US border. But in the tweets he calls the city “rat infested,” and says no one would want to live here, and tells Cummings to fix it instead of criticizing his border policy. It’s an attack that prompted swift reaction from our city leaders and outcry around the internet.

To help me discuss the tweet, its implications and some of the deeper policy issues it touches upon, I’m joined by someone who knows much about both the city and the politics which defined it, Professor Lawrence Brown of Morgan State University. Professor Brown, thank you for joining me.

LAWRENCE BROWN Thank you so much.

TAYA GRAHAM But first, we have a package by Real News Reporter Stephen Janis about both the tweet and the response from Baltimore City officials.

MARY PAT CLARKE, BALTIMORE COUNCILWOMAN Whatever Trump says usually doesn’t matter, but what is said about Baltimore always matters.

STEPHEN JANIS Outrage in front of City Hall Saturday after the latest rounds of tweets from President Donald Trump targeted the district of Congressman Elijah Cummings, which includes Baltimore.

BALTIMORE MAYOR JACK YOUNG He has a history of attacking minorities. I mean, he attacked the Congresswomen. He’s attacking Elijah Cummings. Who else is he going to attack?

STEPHEN JANIS And missives aimed at both him and the community he represents that sparked anger.

SHARON MIDDLETON, BALTIMORE COUNCILWOMAN As far as what he said about Elijah Cummings, I want to say Congressman Elijah Cummings is a statesman that I have respect for, all due respect for.

STEPHEN JANIS The tweet called the city “rat infested” and claimed that no one would want to live here, but that was news to Baltimore Mayor Jack Young, who called the tweets “hurtful” at an impromptu press conference outside City Hall.

BALTIMORE MAYOR JACK YOUNG We’re not going to ignore any one degrading Baltimore City and its elected leadership. No one.

STEPHEN JANIS Council President Brandon Scott also said it proves that Trump is racist.

BRANDON SCOTT, BALTIMORE CITY COUNCIL PRESIDENT Quite a long time. Anyone that thinks the president just became racist over the last couple weeks has been asleep for the last 30 years, right? The president was asleep when he made the comments that he made way back when about the Central Park Five. This guy hasn’t changed at all.

STEPHEN JANIS Trump’s attack on African American politicians is the latest in a series of racially- charged tweets that stoke division and indignation across the country. The president took aim at Cummings after the powerful Chair of the House Oversight Committee held hearings critical of conditions at the country’s border and echoed earlier tweets made by the president that singled out the so-called “squad,” a group of four women of color in Congress who the president told to go back to their respective countries, even though three were born here. For elected officials here, the tweets were not just personal attacks, but part of a purposeful narrative espoused by Trump to ignite a nativist and racial animus. A strategy they say appeared aimed at dividing the country along racial lines for political gain by singling out African Americans yet again, but a narrative they vowed to fight to stand up for the city they say will not be sullied by a president who seems determined to incite controversy at all costs.

BRANDON SCOTT, BALTIMORE CITY COUNCIL PRESIDENT Well, I think you have to defend the honor of something that you love. And we know that we love Baltimore with all our hearts.

STEPHEN JANIS This is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham reporting for The Real News in Baltimore City, Maryland.

TAYA GRAHAM So first, I just want to get your reaction to the tweet. When you saw it, how did you feel? How did you respond?

LAWRENCE BROWN Well, the first thing I think we have to realize is this: President Trump is a stone cold, wily white supremacist who put up a bust of Andrew Jackson— a slave master and notorious for killing Native Americans— in the White House when he assumed office. He probably sleeps on bedsheets made out of Klan covers and has a pillowcase made out of a Confederate flag. And I think once we realize that we can put that to the side, we know that that’s who he is. So he’s a white supremacist and I think all Americans should know that. But I think the other thing that’s also clear to me is that many of our urban Democrats in hyper-segregated cities across America, they’re practitioners of urban apartheid. And I think that’s the catch-22 of American politics for black people in America right now. We have a white supremacist GOP and an apartheid-practicing Democratic Party, and we’re caught in the middle.

And so to me there’s room to criticize both of these entities for not doing what’s good for Baltimore City and particularly what’s good for people living in redlined black communities. We had an uprising on April 27, 2015. West Baltimore, East Baltimore sent a message loud and clear: we need help. Our elected officials eight months later passed a $660 million TIF for billionaire Kevin Plank and his company Under Armour, which also had about $760 million more benefits in tax breaks for Brownfields Rehabilitation and Enterprise Zone tax credits. So our local officials have allowed the conditions of urban apartheid to fester in Baltimore City. And if we’re going to blame somebody, there is blame for Trump because the last time I checked, Baltimore is in the United States of America, and he’s the President of the United States America. So he can’t distance himself from what’s happening in Baltimore. He’s the president and Baltimore is an American city. And then, I also look at our elected officials who have not done what needs to be done to address urban apartheid here in Baltimore City.

TAYA GRAHAM Now, do you think the city council in their response to Trump, the mayor’s response to Trump, that it’s just adding fuel to the fire and it’s just part of Trump’s distraction policy?

LAWRENCE BROWN Well, I mean, Trump is a master of diversion and distraction. If Trump says, hey media what about that over there? Most of me goes, oh he’s right. What about this over here and forget what it is that they were focusing on in the first place. What is Trump trying to distract us from? He’s trying to distract us from the border, from the walls he’s trying to build at the border, from the border camps that are there with refugees. And here’s the thing: Baltimore and the border both have walls. Baltimore and the border both have camps. You have a border camp for refugees. And you have redlined black communities here that serve as camps and concentrate people in extreme poverty and destitution. So I think Trump actually is doing us a service to help us realize that we have walls here in Baltimore that have to come down.

Baltimore created—It past the first residential racial zoning law in 1910 by Baltimore Mayor John Barry Mahool. And then it was carried forward with three more ordinances under Baltimore Mayor James Preston. And so, Baltimore is very adept at building walls. Baltimore is very adept at quarantining and putting poor low-income black people into camps and communities where they don’t have resources. And we have politicians today—  black and white— that have not dismantled the apartheid that Baltimore led the nation in creating.

TAYA GRAHAM Now, we watched President Trump attack Congressman Lewis. We watched him tell four women of color to go back to their countries. Even this morning he attacked Al Sharpton. So do you think that these attacks are coordinated in some way? Do you think there’s a reason that these attacks are all connected?

LAWRENCE BROWN Yeah. They’re all connected. Before Trump got in office, he attacked Mexico. And then when he got into office, he attacked Puerto Rico. Then, he added Chicago. Then, he talked about the four congresswomen— all of color. Now he’s talking about Baltimore, Chocolate City. So—And then he’s talking about Al Sharpton and Elijah Cummings. There is a connection. When President Trump tries to attack people really hard, he goes after black folks, people of color, people who are marginalized, people who are oppressed. So that’s what makes him a white supremacist. And I think just be clear about that, and we could move on to the next piece, which is the way in which our local leaders, you know, are complicit in this project.

TAYA GRAHAM You know, it sounds to me that you’re saying that the Democratic Party on some level has failed our city and failed our state. And I think one example of that is when Democratic Mayor Martin O’Malley enacted zero tolerance policing in Baltimore City. And at its height in 2006 and 2007, over 100,000 residents were arrested in a city of 630,000 people, and the majority of those people were African American. So are you saying perhaps it’s reasonable to critique the Democratic Party here because a lot of people are saying, well Baltimore City has an incredibly high violent crime rate right now? We are dealing with poverty. We’re dealing with what you’re calling urban apartheid. I mean, are we — do we need to criticize the Democratic Party now?

LAWRENCE BROWN Yeah. I think we should absolutely criticize the Democratic Party. I think it’s a necessity to do so. We have many Democratic mayors in urban areas where a large percentage of African Americans live. So whatever happens with Republicans, Democrats share in that blame at the local level. Here in Baltimore, you mentioned Martin O’Malley. You know, not only did he institute a stop and frisk regime for the Baltimore Police Department, he also passed East Baltimore Development Incorporated, a real estate venture for Johns Hopkins University to expand its footprint in East Baltimore over an 88-acre space uprooting and displacing over 730 African American families, which facilitates and perpetuates poverty and people not having social bonds, social capital, social connections, their social network.

You know, I know of a woman named Lucille Gorham who was in her late 70s when she was displaced by Johns Hopkins — had a heart attack. They moved her out to Belair-Edison. She had a $150,000 relocation package and they put her in a home that was worth $184,000, which meant that she had to take out yet another mortgage which she could not pay. And then, she needed to take out a reverse mortgage to fix the damage in the home and make it to accommodate her because she didn’t have the resources to pay for that damage in the home. So you know, Johns Hopkins University.

We just saw the University of Maryland Medical System and their complicity in participating in buying books from our mayor to curry favor to receive the tax breaks that they received once they privatized themselves as a hospital in 1984 under then State Senator Frank Kelly— Democrat. Democrats. So you know, we just saw our mayor just leave office because of corruption, because she was working with corporations who were buying things from her, getting things from her so that they could get tax breaks and get the things that they wanted. So Baltimore is a city that has been failed by Republican presidents, by Republican mayors, and by Democratic local officials. It has been failed in the black butterfly by all of these elected officials and that’s why I say the blame, there’s enough blame for everybody.

TAYA GRAHAM You know, Democrats seem very concerned on a national level about US border policy, but I don’t really hear them engaging as much with issues that affect the African American community like mass incarceration or disparities in policing. Why do you think African American issues aren’t a part of the national conversation with the Democrats right now?

LAWRENCE BROWN It’s a great question. Again, I think, you know, urban Democrats in particular failed their base. Urban Democrats in particular cater to corporations in these cities, hyper-segregated cities. And there are eight category-five hyper-segregated cities in America according to Douglas Massey, a sociologist at Princeton, and we know these cities. They’re Baltimore, Detroit, Flint, Chicago, Birmingham, St. Louis, and Cleveland. And these cities, which are pretty much all run by Democratic mayors, they often give tax breaks, tax incentives, TIFs (tax increment financing), PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes), all kinds of deals to corporations. Which means that the money that needs to be spent on health, housing, arts, parks, civil rights, workforce development by those mayors is not spent in the way that it should be to help people living in redlined black communities. When you’re catering to corporations, you’re not going to be making sure that you’re doing justice— racial justice, restorative justice— in redlined communities. And so I think that’s the tradeoff.

That’s the apartheid that’s being practiced. You have apartheid budgets, apartheid policies, apartheid communities and cities where it is pervasive. And black neighborhoods simply don’t matter to urban Democrats. And I think that’s the heart of the matter that whether Trump said this or not, I was still going to be concerned about. Although, I think there’s room to be concerned about, again, what’s happening in both Baltimore and the border. There are walls built in both places and Democrats under Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, they’re able to see to some degree, okay Trump is building walls on the border, but they’re not focused on the walls that have been built in our urban areas. It only happens—They only get their attention when there’s an uprising or a piece like this where a Fox News reporter with the crazy initials KKK, she puts a hit piece about Baltimore. And now when Trump talks about it, now urban Democrats, now our local officials want to say, oh yeah, we defend Baltimore. How are you defending Baltimore when you haven’t addressed the issues in the city? So there’s blame for everybody. And they’re not focused on the walls in America and at the border.

TAYA GRAHAM You know, I’m really glad you brought up Kimberly Klasik. She is actually an African American, a Baltimore County resident, and I believe she’s engaged with the Republican Party there. And she went into West Baltimore and shot footage of an alley, some trash in an alley. She interviewed a Baltimore City resident and she used this as proof on Fox News to be able to say that Baltimore City is overcrowded, it is rat-infested, and to criticize Representative Cummings and to support what President Trump has said. So do you think Representative Cummings has actually done enough to help his district in Baltimore? I mean, people are making the argument that our city is facing incredible challenges right now. I mean, do some of these people have a point?

LAWRENCE BROWN Well, nobody’s done enough to help West Baltimore. Nobody. I don’t care who they are. Nobody’s done enough to help West Baltimore and East Baltimore, which is getting left out of the discussion. I shouldn’t say both of these areas. Well, West Baltimore in particular is being used as a political football. These people aren’t really, the politicians that I see, they aren’t really interested in doing something. They want to talk about West Baltimore, but they don’t want to do anything. They’re not coming from a place of concern. And I have a problem when you have a critique without a concern. You know, I critique, but I have a concern about what’s happening in those communities, the people that live there, the people that are dying there, and the people that don’t have opportunity there. And I think that’s the heart. That’s was really disturbing about this, is that what are people actually going to do at the end of the day?

You know, Council Member Eric Costello, Council Bill 19-0335 he put together, is a bill which is going to have tax breaks for where 90% of the benefit will go to 10% of the communities. Most of those communities that are in the White L, where our white communities are located, are near gentrifying communities and institutions like Johns Hopkins or the University of Maryland. And so, you know, he put this bill out just like last week or the week before. And you know, this notion that people are really doing something when every city council member except Ryan Dorsey is a cosponsor of a bill where the equity statement from the finance department lays out the equity implications of this. And even though my good friend and Council Member Ryan Dorsey has said, well that came out after they cosponsored it, there’s still my concern of why wouldn’t you wait to read the equity statement before cosponsoring such a bill? First of all, who should be trusting anything that Eric Costello puts out in the first place? I think that’s the first question I have for these council members.

TAYA GRAHAM That’s a reasonable question.

LAWRENCE BROWN And I should say he’s the Chair of the Taxation, Finance, and Economic Development Committee, which would pass these types of tax deals and TIFs. It came through his committee as a matter of fact. So I think, you know, I critique the good council member, Council President Brandon Scott, for making him the chair. I critique the way this policy as proposed is going to intensify Baltimore apartheid. I critique the way that Eric Costello, our council member, my council member, put a cap on the source of income discrimination bill passed earlier this year, which was designed to help reduce discrimination. And he said, I want to put a curb on that. I want to put a brake on that so that it won’t happen as fast as it should. So there is plenty of blame to go around and those are the type of specific policies that our council members—He needs to withdraw, they need to repeal and replace these sort of predatory apartheid policies and practices that are taking place in Baltimore City, if they’re really real.

And I should add, you know, none of these politicians to me are serious when there’s an ongoing lead poison crisis in our city, which is at the root of so much of our crime, violence, and academic underachievement in our schools. We have lead in the pipes in our schools—

TAYA GRAHAM Yes, we do.

LAWRENCE BROWN In our homes, in the soil, in the air and Curtis Bay. So if our politicians are serious, they would declare a state of emergency and get lead out of our homes, out of the environment, out of the soil, out of the water. They would appeal the type of policies that Eric Costello is putting forward. They would enforce racial equity. They would make black neighborhoods matter. They would pass a $3 billion racial equity social impact bond that I’m proposing to do those things. They would make sure that we stop spending more money on police than we do on health, housing, arts, parks, civil rights, and workforce development combined. Those are the things that need to happen.

TAYA GRAHAM That’s an excellent point. You know, Victor Blackwell, who’s also from Baltimore City and he’s a reporter for CNN, he had a completely different response than Kimberly Klasik did. He went and spoke about it and I think we have a clip that we can roll right now to watch.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN NEWS ANCHOR The president says about Congressman Cummings’s district that “no human would want to live there.” You know who did, Mr. President? I did from the day I was brought home from the hospital, to the day I left for college. And a lot of people I care about still do. There are challenges, no doubt. But people are proud of their community. I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but people get up and go to work there. They care for their families there. They love their children who pledge allegiance to the flag just like people who live in districts of congressmen who support you, sir. They are Americans too.

TAYA GRAHAM What did you think of his response? And how much do you think Trump’s comments like this hurt our city and also hurt our nation?

LAWRENCE BROWN You know, that when I saw Victor Blackwell saying that, you know, that moved me in a real way. It made me think about research that shows that President Trump’s comments actually inflict mental health damage.

TAYA GRAHAM Really? I hadn’t heard of that.

LAWRENCE BROWN Absolutely. There are birth outcomes among Latino women that show a decrease in birth outcomes and positive birth outcomes, you know, after the rhetoric that Trump puts out.

TAYA GRAHAM That’s horrifying.

LAWRENCE BROWN It is. You know, there’s other areas in the research called — where, you know, researchers like Monica Williams and Morgan Maxwell, they look at something called race-based traumatic stress. And I think, you know, our Mayor Jack Young, one area I agree with him is where he says, “this was an attack.” And at first, I sort of paused, but then I thought, you know, from a mental health standpoint this is an attack. You know, this is distressing. It is something that causes a lot of people to alarm because there are a lot of people in Baltimore working on the ground trying to make this city better. There are a lot of people trying to make black neighborhoods matter. And so for this president who is the President of America and Baltimore is an American city, so it’s partially his responsibility. To say this is deeply distressing, especially when his policies, the Opportunity Zones— I like to call them “Trump zones”— don’t actually do a damn thing to actually help people. They’re helping his son-in-law like Jared Kushner get rich. Many of these Opportunity Zones are in—

TAYA GRAHAM That’s an excellent point.

LAWRENCE BROWN Areas that don’t need help. In Baltimore, there’s a Trump zone in Port Covington where Kevin Plank got the TIF that I talked about earlier, and there’s also a Trump zone in downtown. Those areas don’t need any more opportunities than they already have. Freddie Gray’s community needs it. Korynn Gaines’s community needed it. East Baltimore needs it. So, yeah. I think they’re distressing. His policies aren’t helping. He is the distractor-in-chief. He is the diverter-in-chief. He is, in fact, the white supremacist-in-chief. And I think that’s what we have to treat him.

TAYA GRAHAM Okay. So I have to wrap this up. I have just one final question for you. If you could talk to the nation right now, and you could let them know anything about Baltimore to maybe kind of change this negative image and the negativity in this conversation, what would you want them to know?

LAWRENCE BROWN I mean, I think I would just basically say Baltimore is like any other city. In many ways, it is a reflection of America. There’s so many things about Baltimore that are very true about America. And if they’re not true now, they actually will be coming. Baltimore perhaps is a picture of where America is going. And if we want to do something about changing America, we need to start with cities like Baltimore. The Civil War started in Baltimore. Or it didn’t start here, but the first bloodshed was here on Pratt Street, the Pratt  Street riots. So I think that conflict of Confederate-Union, black-white, white supremacists and victims of white supremacy— a lot of those conflicts are here. And if we can resolve those and reconcile the conflict here, then there really is hope for America.

TAYA GRAHAM Professor Brown, I just want to thank you so much for your time and this enlightening discussion.


TAYA GRAHAM My name is Taya Graham and I’m your host for The Real News. Thank you for joining me.

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Dr. Lawrence Brown is an activist, global health consultant, and professor at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. He studies the role of racism, masculinity, and disinvested neighborhoods with regard to their impact on health. His research explores the intersection between history and public health.