Black workers in Baltimore and across the country face a dual crisis of unemployment and low-wage work. The result of this is the stark contrast between Black and white median income: $33,801 yearly for Black workers compared to $62,751 yearly for our white counterparts. In this report, we lay out the current state of low-wage Black workers, situate it in the history of systemic racial discrimination, and call for the role of a Baltimore Black Worker Center to focus on the dual jobs crisis for Black workers in Baltimore -- unemployment and low-wage work.

We are not providing new research, but have used data from the most recent 2010 U.S. Census to present an analysis and a call to action to a crisis that is decades old. Our charge in this particular moment is to organize and demand change that creates meaningful access to a higher quantity and quality of jobs that support healthy, affordable, and safe neighborhoods and communities for Black workers.

Black workers in Baltimore face a dual jobs crisis: high rates of unemployment, and low-wage work.

Black workers built the foundation of Baltimore from its shipyards to its roads, bridges, factories and retail industries. Black workers have been a reckoning force in a labor market that has pushed for greater liberation, despite a long and continued history of state-sponsored physical and economic violence. And yet, the state of Black workers in Baltimore continues to be one of segregation and inequality.

Data throughout this report is taken from the 2010 census tract indicators for Baltimore City with workers ages 16-64 years. In the following discussion, we refer to low wage workers as those making less than $35,000.



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Here are some highlights for the state of Black workers in Baltimore:

Percentage of the workforce: Non-Hispanic Blacks comprise 56.5% of the workforce

Black workforce:

  • Gender: Black Women comprise 57.8% of the Black workforce

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  • Age: Black Youth comprise 11.7% of the Black workforce
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  • Predominant Sector: 22.8% of Black men and 27.2% of Black women work in the public sector
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The low-wage workforce highlights the dual Black jobs crisis in the Baltimore City economy. This is emphasized by the following:

  •  54.7% of Black workers earn low wages compared to 29.3% of white workers.
  • 52.6% of Black male workers are low-wage workers, but Black males are 62.3% of the low-wage male workforce.
  • 56.3% of Black female workers are low-wage workers, but Black females are 71.1% of the low-wage female workforce.
  • 84.2% of all Black workers in the Grocery Store industry receive low wages.

These data individually and collectively confirm the dual crisis for Black workers in Baltimore: underemployment and employment in sectors that are least likely to assure wages that sustain the wellbeing of Black workers and their communities. As data throughout this report show, the public sector employs a large swath of Baltimore’s Black workers, but many public sector jobs are low-paying, and at risk of privatization, which would undercut the power of workers to organize for higher wages. The data show that Black workers are entering the workforce earlier in life, and staying in the workforce later in life than our White counterparts. And though Black workers make up 56.5% of the overall workforce in Baltimore, they make up 67.3% of the low-wage workforce.


The Legacy of History Is Not Over

Generations of deliberate action at the federal, state, and local levels, along with the private actions of white individuals and groups to concentrate Black poverty in particular geographical areas, limit job and wealth-building opportunities, and strategically disinvest from public infrastructure continues to perpetuate the dual Black jobs crisis we see in Baltimore. The effects of the crisis also relate to intersecting disparities in health, housing, education, transportation, income, and wealth for Black workers. This legacy has led to a highly segregated city described by Dr. Lawrence Brown as the “White L” and the “Black Butterfly,” referring to the downtown corridor and Harbor areas largely populated by White residents, and the areas to the East and West of the city primarily inhabited by Baltimore’s Black residents.


Racial Discrimination in Local, State, and Federal Housing Policies


Local, state, and federal governments placed an explicit value on the racial composition of city neighborhoods, with all-white neighborhoods receiving far better property evaluations than non-white ones. Currently, landlords in Baltimore City are allowed to discriminate against renters based on the source of income they use to pay their rent.

This means that residents using housing vouchers to cover some portion of their rent can, and routinely are, denied access to rental housing in areas of opportunity, restricting housing opportunities for Black public housing residents, and contributing to racialized and economic segregation.


Concentration of Black Poverty into Particular Neighborhoods


Policies have concentrated poverty and a range of social ills in Black neighborhoods, and increasingly in cities with large Black populations, while generating wealth and privileges in white ones.

Due to racism and source of income discrimination, the vast majority of people with Housing Choice Vouchers are clustered in Black neighborhoods and not given the opportunity to live in wealthier--and typically whiter--communities that currently have more opportunity.


Limitations on Black Poor and Working Class Mobility


Housing, transportation, education, and economic development policies have limited Black mobility in disinvested, redlined Black neighborhoods, which significantly reduced the ability of Blacks to make money on the properties they owned. This includes access to healthy quality of life.

Without transit equity, Black workers have been stymied from reaching the jobs that are located throughout the Baltimore region. As the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition states, many riders in transit deserts throughout East and West Baltimore are subjected to severe “transit detention”—being stuck on transit modes for 45+ minutes in order to get to work or school.

Additionally, as can be seen in the map below, the communities that have the highest percentages of people that travel less than 15 minutes to work are the White L communities. This is precisely because of the structural transit advantages that are abundant in the those neighborhoods as shown above.

Additionally,  Black workers in Baltimore are largely disconnected from suburban job hubs in terms of rapid rail. This is apparent in the maps below. The first shows that most available jobs are in the Midtown, Downtown, and Harbor areas of the city, with additional hubs at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins.

Combined with the fact that most of our existing transit modalities run north-south, Black workers living in East Baltimore and West Baltimore have much longer commute times to these jobs which are mostly in the fields of healthcare, education and government (in green color).

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While most of the manufacturing & logistics (in dark orange), retail, hospitality, and service jobs (in yellow color) are located in three main job hubs outside of the city, that is often far from where the majority of Black Workers live.

Racial Income and Wealth Gaps

Systematically created through exclusion from job sectors and discrimination in pay, promotion, and career opportunities, Black workers have been denied wealth-building opportunities and shunted into lower-paying, slower-advancing jobs. Much of this is rooted in discriminatory housing policies in Baltimore which prevented and still prevent Black neighborhoods from receiving capital for mortgage lending and business expansion.

The wealth gap is also exacerbated by an ongoing “Black Tax” in the form of subprime mortgage and automobile lending, along with higher payments for auto insurance. There has also been little action seen around the enforcement of the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act in Baltimore.


New policies continue the pattern of racial discrimination

New policies have continued to reproduce these results over time. Indeed, long after redlining was made illegal, the conditions of redlined communities are still problematic.

Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods have been starved of capital that would have allowed Black businesses and social enterprises to expand and grow at the rate of their White counterparts.

In these maps we see the existing TIF (Tax Increment Financing) projects, or, where the City allocates tax breaks for capital development. As we can see, TIF spending is concentrated in the White L, or controlled by historically segregating institutions such as Johns Hopkins University (via the East Baltimore Development Initiative, or EBDI) and the University of Maryland BioPark.  

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In the bottom two maps we see that between 2011 and 2013, private banks primarily conducted their lending in the White L, and that Black neighborhoods were still suffering from lending deserts.

But how, in a city with a majority Black population and political leadership, did Black Workers end up with such inequitable outcomes?




This brief history of Baltimore Black workers introduces us to some of the intentional policies and practices that resulted in the systemic inequities facing Black Workers today, and the powerful legacy of how Black workers have resisted and thrived despite the many structural and personal obstacles placed in their way. From the history of enslaved Africans to today, Black workers have been pushing toward freedom. This quest for freedom has taken many paths.

Since Africans were first forcibly brought to the port city of Baltimore as enslaved labor in the 1700s, Black workers have been subject to White capitalists’ schemes for profit. During enslavement, Black workers were made commodities and bought and sold on financial markets. Enslaved Black workers were purchased, leased, rented, mortgaged, and collateralized. These workers in Baltimore and beyond were never allowed access to participate and use their labor to their own benefit, contributing to the gap in opportunity over the decades and centuries that followed. For example, in 1820s Baltimore, when 25% of the population was Black—the majority free Blacks—the construction of three new public schools for all white students intended to prepare the workforce based on the premise that “labor was self-owned property that individual workers must be prepared to vend in the marketplace”.

After Emancipation, Baltimore’s Black workers were denied access to the best resourced public schools and transportation accommodations during the reign of Jim Crow. During Jim Crow, Black Baltimoreans were further exploited through the creation and intensification of racially segregated neighborhoods.

These Black neighborhoods were denied access to capital through public and private practices of  redlining, even as Black laborers were charged to excess for rent and home purchasing through contract lending and blockbusting. The Baltimore advocacy group Activists for Fair Housing Inc. called these disproportionately higher payments the “Black Tax.”  For Black small businesses especially, the lack of access to capital prevented them from growing and expanding, and was devastating to Black business growth. For Black workers, it meant more opportunities were denied, and employment opportunities in Black neighborhoods were systematically depressed.

As hundreds of thousands of Southern Black migrants swept into Baltimore during the Great Migration, they would fall prey to the destruction of the Black labor market: the suburbanization of jobs and accelerating decline in well-paying manufacturing jobs as a result of post-industrialization. According to Marc Levine, between 1950-2000, Baltimore lost over 100,000 manufacturing jobs as the Baltimore labor market transformed to one more oriented toward a service-based and knowledge-based economy. Along with this came the downfall of unions from their former height, and the declining ability of workers to negotiate collectively for higher wages and benefits, which further depressed Black worker power.

With the reallocation of jobs to locations outside of the city and the advent of Black Baltimore neighborhood destruction in the 1940s to 1970s— through slum clearance, poverty-concentrating public housing siting, urban renewal, and highway construction—many Black Baltimoreans were flushed out of the job market and numerous Black small business were wiped out. These turbulent forces contributed to Baltimore’s Holy Week Uprising in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

By the 1980s, many Black Baltimore neighborhoods suffered from the cumulative effects of government policies--concentrated poverty and opportunities denied--leading to escalating epidemics: crack cocaine, HIV, lead poisoning, and crime. With the one-two punch of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, the value of Black workers was once again commoditized in the prison-industrial complex. Black workers’ labor in prisons would reap profits for both public institutions and private businesses.

At the end of the 20th century de-industrialization resulted in a loss of available jobs for blue collar workers, especially Black blue collar workers. The new jobs that came to cities like Baltimore were in the fields of education, medicine, finance, insurance, and real estate, and were largely only available to people  with higher educational attainment, leaving out and further disenfranchising the majority of Black workers. People accessing these jobs were able to make a stable living and generate wealth, while Black workers without access were left out, setting in motion the growing economic inequity seen in Baltimore and beyond today.

From Dr. Marisela Gomez’s article, “Why does Baltimore need a Black Worker Center?: “When people are excluded from legitimate sources of income, they do not lay down and die. This is often called resilience.”  In Baltimore and similar cities that faced this challenge of unemployment and lack of access to family and community sustaining jobs, this resilience came in the form of “hustling”:“So what do they do? They do all kinds of hustling. And a lot of hustling involved drugs. And so there was a rise of addiction and a rise of violence related to this new industry. Through which some people were able to make a living, some people made a lot of money, but a lot of communities became destabilized.” (Dr. Mindy Fullilove, Black Mental Health Alliance)


Structural solutions for black workers

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Given the discriminatory history of Baltimore City towards Black workers and Black neighborhoods and the challenges facing Black workers, we propose nine areas of solutions to boost the prospects of Black workers in Baltimore City.

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Racial Equity in Economic Development

Due to the legacy of historical and current public and private redlining, it is incumbent upon city leaders to make Black neighborhoods matter!  One way to accomplish this is through the deployment of racial equity TIFs/PILOTs or social impact bonds. The City has been able to find the resources to give multi-millionaire Michael Beatty $107 million for his TIF at Harbor Point and multi-billionaire Kevin Plank $535 million for his TIF at Port Covington. We could utilize Racial Equity TIFs as essentially social impact bonds or a Pay for Success approach to address issues like lead poisoning in Black neighborhoods. We could also create Racial Equity Enterprise Zones that would be located directly in redlined Black neighborhoods to catalyze economic activity, business growth, and local hiring in said neighborhoods.


Baltimore Neighborhood Reparations

Additionally, we call for more direct and deeper investments to undo the damage done to Black neighborhoods in the form of Baltimore Neighborhood Reparations, to be invested in the 20-30 Black neighborhoods that are the most historically redlined, disinvested, and structurally disadvantaged. This would involve taking 10% of the city’s budget for the next 30-50 years and splitting the money evenly to the aforementioned neighborhoods. Democratically elected councils of 15 neighborhood members would be elected to help administer how their allocation would be directed toward community-determined priorities, such as worker, housing, and food cooperatives that would help boost Black labor and the overall quality of Black life.

The combination of Racial Equity TIFs/social impact bonds/Pay for Success, Racial Equity Enterprise Zones, and Baltimore Neighborhood Reparations would boost not only Black employment but the growth and sustainability of social enterprises and worker/housing cooperatives in Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods. Technical assistance with licensing and regulations should be provided by the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development or a newly created Mayor’s Office of Racial Equity in order to help make the ideas articulated here viable and scalable.


Create Opportunities for Black Workers at Large Institutions and Businesses

Black workers need more opportunities to work, as well as access to living wage jobs at large institutions and businesses. For example, at Johns Hopkins University, the city’s largest private employer, Black workers occupy 73.3% of the service and maintenance jobs (according to the 2014 JHU Annual Diversity Report). However, Black workers account for only 37.6% of clerical workers, only 20.9% of skilled craftspersons, only 25.5% of technical workers, and only 13.5% and 12.1% of professional and executive workers, respectively. Clearly, there is significant room for Black worker growth at the City’s largest private employer.

Another of Baltimore’s largest employers is Under Armour and its related companies (Sagamore Development, Inc.). These corporate entities have received large public subsidies from the taxes paid by Black workers ($760.4 million for the Sagamore Tax Increment Financing, including $313 million in Enterprise Zone tax breaks).

To date, this large Baltimore employer has not produced a plan to hire a representative number of Black Baltimore workers. It is important for Under Armour and Sagamore to hire significant numbers of Black workers at all of its sites and all phases of development into good paying jobs in the Baltimore region.


Invest in Transit Equity: Connect Black Workers to City and Region

Baltimore has a long history of transit inequity that closely mirrors the racialized exclusion of resources given to Black neighborhoods. As we’ve discussed earlier, many of the City’s transit infrastructure such as bike lanes, BikeShare, the Charm City Circulator, Zipcar, and light rail are tightly concentrated in the White L.

Even the city’s 2015 bicycle survey was administered in a discriminatory fashion (i.e. all bicycle observations were conducted in the White L), helping to determine where protected bike lanes and projects like BikeShare should be placed.

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As most of the manufacturing & logistics (in dark orange) and retail, hospitality and service jobs (in yellow color) are located in three main job hubs outside of the city, what’s needed is an east-west rapid rail line that connects to the 3 jobs hubs in a manner shown the map above.

The impact of the inequity Black workers face in Baltimore is the dual job crisis they are now presented with.

On the one hand unemployment remains a problem. On the other hand, when Black workers find employment they are more likely to be in low-wage jobs. This dual crisis requires both a recognition of how we got here and a deliberate course of action to change this legacy that impacts equity in employment, housing, health, education, and transportation.


why baltimore needs a black worker center

The creation of a Baltimore Black Worker Center is an important part of directly addressing this dual crisis. Whether through increasing union jobs, policy reform, direct services, worker cooperative development, or grassroots issue campaigns, the Baltimore Black Worker Center’s goal is to build the grassroots power of Black workers to promote racial and economic justice in the workplace and throughout our communities.

The center aims to increase access to quality and living wage jobs; end discrimination in the workplace; redefine the meaning and possibilities of work; and advance a solidarity economy in Baltimore city led by Black workers.

Building a Baltimore Black Worker Center is about building a movement of Black workers to transform ourselves, our city and the current economic, political, and social status quo.

We seek to organize with and as Black workers because Black workers occupy an important and strategic role in our society for disrupting business as usual and developing sustainable, creative, and transformative Black worker-led solutions for a just and equitable Baltimore for all.

To date, the Baltimore Black Worker Center has started executing these strategies through four committees:

• Outreach & Base-building

• Education

• Research

• Media, Arts, & Culture

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The Goal

The thriving of low-income Black workers in Baltimore and beyond is critical for equitable access to housing, food, education, health, recreation, transportation. When someone who works for a living, is still unable to afford adequate food, shelter, clothing and medicine, we remain an inequitable society.

When those workers congregate into the same racial/ethnic group, we have systematic racism: racism which is not only individualized but embedded deep within the policies and infrastructures of our society.

A Black Worker Center can be a base of organizing to address this inequity for Black people in Baltimore.

The ability to work is the first step toward equity. This means that a person has the physical and mental wellness to support them finding employment.

The second step is being qualified to work: has the person had the necessary training to compete in the marketplace for a position?

The third step is the availability of work.

The fourth step is that the place of employment supports the worker so they can stay in the position and thrive.

This fourth step brings us back full circle to the first: a thriving person has the ability to work. It’s a cycle that continues and that either allows a healthy and holistic body and mind to thrive, or not: on a cellular, organ, individual, and community level.

Black Worker Centers are growing in numbers across the US with, Baltimore launching its center on Martin Luther King Day, January 2017.

Baltimore Black Worker Center  (BBWC) is committed to building a Black worker base, through workers and allies, to address the conditions of workers and to organize to change unfair policies and introduce new policies which support equitable treatment and healthy living, working, and learning conditions for Black workers. Low-wage and unemployed Black workers are some of the most vulnerable communities in our city. If our most vulnerable populations thrive, all of Baltimore will thrive.

To support the development of a Baltimore Black Worker Center, visit our website at