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  • Writer's pictureTracie Guy-Decker

The Lines Between Us by Lawrence Lanahan

I decided to read The Lines Between Us after I heard Lawrence Lanahan talk about his research on housing policy in Baltimore at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. Several years ago, I read Not in My Neighborhood by Antero Pietilo, which Lanahan identifies as a precursor to his book. In the past year, I read the Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein. All three of these books work together to provide a powerful picture of de jure, i.e. intentional, and enforced by government, segregation in the US and especially in Baltimore.

Lanahan’s volume integrates deep storytelling of two families--one white and one black--in the region with the story of policy, advocacy, and culture. All three stories--the Langes, the Smiths and housing policy in Baltimore--are traced from the 1960s through today. This braided work challenged me in several ways:

The history Lanahan illumines is troubling. It is the story of bald-faced racism often disguised as “race neutral” policy and actions. I was surprised to recognize names of players in the arena who I know by reputation from their second or third careers, such as Bob Embry, now the Director of the Abell Foundation, but once the Baltimore City housing commissioner. I found it almost surreal to read Lanahan’s accounts of events I lived through surrounding Freddie Gray’s death and the Uprising that followed. It was truly bizarre to recognize specific events, including a standing-room-only panel discussion about Port Covington at Red Emma’s in 2016, where I was also present.

As a fierce defender of Baltimore, it can be challenging to read the story of Nicole Smith, the woman featured in the book who, using Section 8 vouchers, moves herself and her elementary-aged son out of Baltimore City to Columbia, Maryland. Lanahan’s accounts, always accompanied by research and statistics, suggest Nicole’s successes -- her and her son’s ability to thrive after their move -- is made possible by removing them from the city.

I want to see the city revitalized, but I also want all Baltimoreans to have the best opportunities. Nicole’s story at least suggests I can’t have both. Of course, housing advocates don’t take an either/or approach, seeking to employ all methods that can help people overcome the obstacles created by decades and generations of de jure segregation. Still, the tension between moving folks out of the most fraught neighborhoods or revitalizing those neighborhoods is one that runs through the book. It is a tension that dogs micro as well as macro decisions for residents and fans of Baltimore.

One of the most challenging parts of the book for me was not about the housing policy and effects Lanahan researched. As a self-conscious Jew (though perhaps not always a self-aware one), my own biases were challenged by Lanahan’s careful and sympathetic storytelling around Mark Lange, a white Christian man whose understanding of his religious obligation leads him to relocate to Sandtown-Winchester years before Gray’s death in police custody. As Lanahan tells Lange’s story, I believe in Lange’s deep and authentic religious calling to bear witness and make a difference, following the lead of black residents of Sandtown-Winchester. Mark Lange’s religious-driven antiracism mirrors my own, but I find Mark both braver and more thoroughly committed than I am. Where I self-consciously chose to live inside the city limits when I returned to Baltimore in 2013, Lange and his wife Betty bought a house and moved to the neighborhood with the highest poverty rates and lowest life expectancies in the city.

My experience with overtly religious (white) Christians has been admittedly limited and overwhelmingly negative. Though I have had a few close Christian friends in my life, reading Mark Lange's story made me realize my assessment of white Christians was an amalgam of public figures like Joel Osteen or Jimmy Swaggert and some memorable private interactions with individuals who explicitly tried to convert me or otherwise made me feel less-than because I’m Jewish. Lanahan’s account account of Lange’s journey challenged me to broaden my understanding, replace my judgement with curiosity, and make room in my mind--and my heart--for those who hear the same divine call I hear, even when it is in a vernacular I do not share.

Among all of the challenges Lanahan’s work raised for me, however, the most complicated is the central challenge of his research and storytelling: Recognizing the century plus of de jure segregation in Baltimore and around the country, how do we correct the effects of that segregation? Lanahan relates the many strategies and tactics that have been applied to the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood--there was a great deal of money and resources allocated to help revitalize the neighborhood since the Schmoke administration of the 1980s. There have been some successes, but it doesn’t take a social scientist to discern the residents of the neighborhood continue to struggle against the effects of decades of disinvestment and de jure segregation.

I started The Lines Between Us hopeful to find suggestions or blueprints for a path forward. I finished it with a much clearer understanding of how we got here and the anti-black racism that continues to drive conversations about housing: Lanahan notes the “strongest single predictor of foreclosure rates” during the housling collapse of 2008 - 2009 was “black-white segregation”; and Baltimore County’s Home Act, outlawing “source of income” discrimination, i.e. discrimination against section-8 voucher-holders, just passed at the end of 2019, after a decades-long battle--much of it detailed in this book. Though I came away with a better understanding of the forces that got us here, I still don’t have a clear sense of what we can do about it.

That uncertainty may be intentional on Lanahan’s part. He appropriately quotes the black Baltimore activists who, after the Uprising, asked white folks who wanted to help to please follow the lead of Sandtown residents. Indeed, Lanahan quotes at length an op-ed from Dayvon Love of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle that critiques the “non-profit industrial complex”: “True commitment is working with and assisting black folks to speak for ourselves and lead the institutions that control our lives. If that’s not the primary thrust of people who want to do the work, they will be profiteering financially--and existentially--from our misery.” Lanahan, who is white, writes in his afterword, “White supremacy never stops acting on--or benefitting--white people. Only white people can stop it. As a white man, rather than yearn for the day I am no longer racist, I must beware of the day I think I am no longer racist.”

Amen to that, Lawrence, amen.

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