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In Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, a bleak outlook for family life

In the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, where Freddie Gray grew up and was arrested, both the number of babies born to teenagers and the incarceration rate are exponentially higher than the national average. Tara Huffman, the director of the criminal and juvenile justice program at the Open Society Institute in Baltimore, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the social aspects of life in Sandtown.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    We wanted to turn now to social aspects of life in Sandtown, especially family life.

    For more about that, we are joined by Tara Huffman from the Open Society Institute in Baltimore. She is the director of the criminal and juvenile justice program.

    So, I want to start by playing you a clip — an excerpt from what President Obama said earlier this week, describing impoverished communities across the country that he said he had been stripped of opportunity.

    (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

  • BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:

    Where children are born into abject poverty; they've got parents — often because of substance-abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves — can't do right by their kids.

    Communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men.

    (END VIDEO CLIP)

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is that a fair picture of what life is like in Sandtown-Winchester, that area?

  • TARA HUFFMAN, OPEN SOCIETY INSTITUTE-BALTIMORE:

    Yes, I would say that's a very fair picture of what life is like in Sandtown-Winchester.

    If you look at the history of housing policy in Baltimore City, you'll see that in the 1910s and '20s and '30s, there were a series of city ordinances and restrictive covenants and mortgage red lining that locked African-American families out of resource-rich neighborhoods and into resource-poor neighborhoods.

    Then, through the '50s, and the '60s, and the '70s, those same neighborhoods were displaced.

    Up to 20,000 families displaced so that the city could build new highways and new schools and new housing projects.

    And then came the loss of jobs in the 1980s, good-paying jobs that didn't require a lot of education but that went away with the manufacturing sector.

    And then, here comes the 1990s and the 2000s and the drug war that over-policed, over-criminalized and over-incarcerated scores of African-Americans, including those in Sandtown-Winchester.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know, you bring up incarceration.

    The rates in these areas are incredibly high, almost seven times the national average. How does that play into and affect the notion of what we consider a family or family life?

  • TARA HUFFMAN:

    I like to think of it sort of as a Jenga puzzle. If you're playing the game of Jenga, you take out one block, the tower still stands.

    You take out another block, the tower still stands, but eventually, you remove too many blocks and the whole thing comes crumbling down.

    When you pull out too many people from that community, particularly too many African American men from that community and expect that the community is going to be better, your approach is flawed.

    You cannot continue to incarcerate that many people from a community and not expect the community to suffer.

    And then after some period of time, release those same people back into that community, but now they have a criminal history that's going to prevent them from getting employment, finding decent housing, and beating kind of men and fathers and brothers and sons that they want to be and that everyone expects them to be.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. I want to read you some comments here, also, from Rand Paul, who's a senator and also presidential candidate, made during the protest in Baltimore this week.

    He said, "There's so many things we can talk about. You know, the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society."

    Your reaction to that?

  • TARA HUFFMAN:

    We cannot talk about breakdown of families and breakdown of the moral code without also talking about government's role in either investing in these families and these communities or not investing in these families and these communities.

    So, if you want to improve a Sandtown-Winchester, if you want to prevent another Freddie Gray, then what it's going to take is not just investment — because investments have happened in Sandtown-Winchester, but they've been piecemeal and they've been pilot projects, not part of a comprehensive investment strategy.

    And it pales in comparison to the kinds of investment we've seen in other parts of the city, particularly downtown and those surrounding neighborhoods.

    So, if you're going to invest, then they have to be targeted investments that deliberately dismantle years of structural racism and inequality in those communities.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Tara Huffman, from the Open Society Institute, thanks so much.

  • TARA HUFFMAN:

    Thank you.

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