David Warsh: Heartening signs of social progress


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, where this piece originated, and a longtime economic historian and financial columnist.

Llewellyn King: Riots and the end of industrial prosperity

I was in Baltimore the last time it burned. That was back in April 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Washington also burned at that time. There was something surreal about the mood of the riots in both cities. The anger from African-American rioters seemed to be directed wholly against property.

I walked among the rioters, up 14th Street to the U Street Corridor, the commercial hub of the Shaw area of Washington. Later that day, I drove around Baltimore. They seemed to me to be an uncommonly respectful pair of riots.

In Washington, young African-American men directed me where to go safely; one looter, coming out of a shop on 14th and F Street, asked me if I needed anything, as though he were the proprietor.

Over the decades, I have wondered about those riots. I think they were indeed riots of anger as well as sorrow. King, the great civil-rights leader, had been murdered, and already people knew that there would not be another like him.

For days I drove around Baltimore, where I lived at the time, and Washington, where troops were patrolling and curfews were in place. With a large “PRESS” sign taped on my car’s windshield, I was allowed to drive around both cities, and I watched them come to grips with reality. A Washington Post writer described how a white motorist and a black motorist had waved each other through an intersection, both feeling they were doing something significant.

But Washington is not Baltimore. And, at that time, Baltimore was as segregated as any Southern city.

The proprietor of a bar near The Baltimore News-American, the Hearst newspaper where I worked, would shoo away blacks with this lie, “This is a private club and I can’t serve you, but I can sell you a bottle to go.”

I wanted to challenge this, and urged a black friend on the newspaper, Lee Lassiter, to come with me and make a stand. He averred, not because he was lacking in courage, but because he was fighting another battle over bars. Lassiter and other activists were trying to restrict the spread of cheap bars in the ghetto, where licenses were indiscriminately issued by a white board to white businessmen.

Unlike Washington, which, in some ways, was a more secure community and where there was certain amount of integration, the whites in Baltimore took little interest in the blacks. There was no sense that they shared a city.

Baltimore’s politics were white; its sensibilities were white; and it was comfortably assumed that in the profusion of row houses, there were happy blacks, living a happy parallel life -- although that term was not used. Not true then, and not true now.

This is a subjective comment, but I have always felt there is a kind of special dejection in the Baltimore ghetto.

While there was manufacturing, steel and shipbuilding and a car plant in Baltimore, guaranteeing good union jobs, there were pockets of prosperity. As these jobs faded in Baltimore, and other American cities, so did the hope for a route to the middle class for those in the ghetto.

As crime increased everywhere, it surged in Baltimore. Gun ownership shot up, mostly among ghetto youth.

Baltimore’s police – who probably felt the effect in their families, if not in their own aspirations, of the end of industrial prosperity -- took out their frustrations on those who had even minor malefactions.

Men in uniform easily degenerate into bullies. I saw this in London. When a policeman and a suspect face off, after the policeman is sure that he is not facing an ambush, he has absolute power over the suspect. It is an intrinsically ugly moment: When the handcuffs click, justice and liberty are at bay. Later in court, or through a civilian review, those things may be re-established. But when the suspect is under lock and key, the police power is absolute -- and it is absolutely corrupting.

Police officers go over the line often, and I have seen this all over the world. Race worsens things, but it is not a necessary ingredient.

It is sad for me that, 47 years later, Baltimore should have been torched by a mob. It is sad, too, that things in the row houses of Baltimore are as bad as ever, and that the mob is still the only voice black Baltimoreans think they have.

Llewellyn King ( is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.