The news out of Baltimore suggests some interesting lessons about the possibilities for meliorism. That’s what Boston intellectuals called their belief in progress, in the days before the relevant part of metaphysics became known, first as liberalism, and, recently, as progressivism. Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Dewey and Martin Luther King Jr. were meliorists.
The news from Baltimore had seemed pretty bleak until Friday, when a 35-year-old city prosecutor brought charges against six police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray last month. An attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police in Baltimore complained of an “egregious rush to judgment.”
Those developments got me thinking about some other measures that have been taken over the years to improve civic life in the United States.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn James Mosby grew up in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. He mother, father, aunts, and uncles were Boston police officers. Her grandfather, Prescott Thompson, helped organize the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, in 1968.
Mosby went to school in Dover, Mass., one of three black girls driven 10 miles to that wealthy suburb every day under the METCO program, an alternative that stood the test of time better than Boston’s famously ill-fated court-ordered desegregation plan of the mid-1970s.
When she was 17, in 1994, Mosby’s 17-year-old cousin was shot to death next door to her home in what may have been a case of mistaken identity. The shooter, also 17, went to prison for life. Mosby went on to college at Tuskegee University in Alabama, then entered Boston College Law School.
She met Nick Mosby there; the two married and moved to Baltimore after graduation. He became a city councilor representing the West Baltimore neighborhood in which Freddie Gray lived. Last fall she defeated a much better-funded white male in the Democratic primary for the city’s top prosecutor job.
It seems likely that policies of affirmative action, school integration, voter registration and growing consciousness of gender discrimination played supporting role at various stages in that story, along with pluck and the manifest content of Mosby’s character.
What about other salients of reform along which progressives have pressed for reform?
You might begin, I suppose, with lead paint. A successful campaign to ban lead as an inexpensive stabilizing ingredient of paint was a major goal of social activists in the 1970s. Tiny portions of flaking lead paint ingested by children can cause major harm to developing brains. (Freddie Gray, who was arrested for no more serious infraction than running away when bidden to stop by officers, according to the prosecutor, is thought to have suffered from lead poisoning as a child.) Deteriorating lead paint has become less common in poorer neighborhoods, and abatement has slowed, sometimes precipitating renewed battles .
Meanwhile, James Heckman, of the University of Chicago, has raised to the level of near-certitude the proposition that investment in early childhood care and education pays off more handsomely than virtually any other social spending, including education and job training. Thus President Obama’s 20126 “2016” YES? budget calls for $750 million in grants to states to encourage them to expand their programs for pre-kindergarten care.
(That doesn’t mean the enthusiasm for apprenticeship programs has dissipated. Robert Lerman, of the Urban Institute, says that major expansions of apprenticeship training in South Carolina have stimulated interest elsewhere in a mechanism that is widely employed in Europe. The Facebook page of his Institute for Innovative Apprenticeship describes many successes.)
For my money, the most interesting initiative of the last 40 ears has been the push for minority home ownership that was the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. The CRA has come in for all manner of calumny since the financial crisis of 2007-08 as the motive force behind subprime lending.
Don’t believe it. Predatory lenders fleeced their share of minority borrowers along with every other sort of victim. But not only did the source of the great danger in the crisis lie elsewhere; the greatest good in recent years lies in the CRA having broken the system of highly unfavorable contract sales that has kept poor families penned up in city ghettos for decades. The story of how government credit policy and subsidized housing was used to promote segregation has only begun to be told.
In other words, discouraging as events may often be, the trend towards the amelioration of social ills is up. That’s why, after the all-but-involuntary spasm of looting was over, so many people in West Baltimore, meliorists themselves, came outdoors to clean up.
David Warsh is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this piece originated, and a longtime economic historian and financial columnist.