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Baltimore Apartheid – Acknowledging the Black Butterfly

By Jordan Britton '17, Staff Writer

· Jordan Britton

Baltimore City is the greatest city in America – at least that’s what all of our city’s benches say. What those benches fail to mention is that Baltimore City comes in two varieties – the white “L” and the black butterfly. Coined by Morgan State assistant professor in Community Health and Policy Lawrence Brown, the terms white “L” and black butterfly refer to the racial distribution of the city as shown on a map:

In Baltimore, as in the rest of America, wealth follows whiteness. This translates to better public services (e.g. the Charm City Circulator – a free bus system), improved infrastructure (e.g. Charles St. reconstruction near Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus), more and better food and retail options, and increased investment from the city and consequently developers (e.g. Remington Row) within the areas that fall within this overwhelmingly white “L”. But arguably, more important than what is given to the white “L” is what is taken from the black butterfly in the process.

For generations, people of color have found themselves struggling to retain the “unalienable” rights promised to all in the declaration of independence. In a city that is 60% black, this struggle is felt throughout Baltimore. These rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – have been encroached upon and, at times, outright taken from those that inhabit the black butterfly.


The average life expectancy for Baltimore City is 73.6 years, 5 years lower than the national average. This average does not reflect the glaring disparities in life expectancy between neighborhoods within the white “L” and those within the black butterfly. On average the difference in life expectancy between neighborhoods in the white “L” and neighborhoods in the black butterfly is roughly 10 years. At its worst, the disparity is nearly 15 years. For example: in the Roland Park neighborhood, located in the northernmost part of the white “L,” the life expectancy for residents is 83.9 years. and interestingly, the first neighborhood in the country to have a racially restrictive covenant: “a legally enforceable ‘contract’” that prohibits the homebuyer from selling, leasing, or offering occupation to in any capacity to people of color, specifically blacks. In contrast, residents of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood – former home to the late Freddie Grey – in the west wing of the black butterfly have a life expectancy of 70.0 years.

Additionally, of the 343 homicides that occurred in Baltimore City in 2017, 289 victims were black and only 24 were white. All together this means that in Baltimore City the average lifespan of a black resident is lower than that of a white resident. And, a black resident’s chances of being killed are twelve times higher.


On November 15, 2017, Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) detective Sean Suiter was slain in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Harlem Park: a black butterfly neighborhood. Coincidentally, this was the day before he was set to testify in a trial against fellow officers in the BPD racketeering case. With his death came police occupation of Harlem Park. Backed by both state and local officials, the BPD locked down the neighborhood and began harassing residents. Residents were prevented from entering their own homes and checking their mail, were patted down upon entering their own neighborhood, and were required to retain special slips that showed they “belonged” in the area. These violations of civil liberties drew the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which in December 2017 filed a formal request for all police body camera footage from the time of the occupation. Attracting the attention of the ACLU is cause for concern.

For context, in 2008 Washington, D.C. Police instituted military style checkpoints in a high crime neighborhood in the northeastern corner of the city. Like in Baltimore’s Harlem Park, anyone traveling through the area had to demonstrate a “legitimate” reason for being there. Some residents were even coerced into submitting to searches of their vehicles under threat of arrest. Ultimately, the D.C. circuit court ruled this practice of checkpoints unconstitutional. The occupation of Harlem Park, though shorter, occurred on an even larger scale than these checkpoints. This leads one to believe that the actions of the BPD were in fact unconstitutional and violated the liberties of individuals living within this part of the black butterfly.

These aggressive actions by the Baltimore Police Department are not in isolation. Most recently, the high-profile corruption case of the 8 former members of the BPD Gun Task Force (GTF) revealed that they regularly acted aggressively and often illegally. These actions included committing home invasion, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars, stealing drugs and then selling them, and driving at groups of people standing outside without reason, acting as though this were a ‘game’ of sorts. According to the less than favorable 2016 Justice Department report, the actions of the GTF reflect a toxic culture of abuse in the BPD – a culture that disproportionately impacts the black butterfly.

Pursuit of Happiness

How can those in the black butterfly truly pursue happiness if they’ve been denied both life and liberty?

This infringing upon the rights of the black butterfly worsens the rift between the two Baltimores. One Baltimore flourishes and benefits from increased attention from the city and state through revitalization projects. The other Baltimore struggles to even keep schools warm in the winter. This is no accident. This is the outcome of racist and classist policies that have directed Baltimore’s social life and politics for generations.

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