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The Voice of Resentment

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 5/31/2000

Maybe he's not that bad, thought I. After all, it had been years since I listened to Ron Smith, the self-proclaimed "Voice of Reason" and dean of Baltimore's conservative call-in jockeys. In the meantime, I've become your basic middle-aged, white-male, Northeast Baltimore property owner. Buoyed by notions of my own creeping conservatism, I waded into the abrasive shallows of AM talk radio, Bawlmer style. When I tuned in to Smith's afternoon show on WBAL (1090 AM, wbal.com), he had just read a news item about a study released by the Public Justice Center (PJC), a nonprofit legal-advocacy group, concerning Baltimore-area mortgage lending. PJC had conducted an analysis of mortgage data collected by federal agencies and found that African-American loan applicants at all income levels were turned down for loans at a much higher rate than white applicants, and they were more frequently steered to government-insured loans. Soon Smith's phone was alive with lenders and ex-lenders sharing anecdotes about bending over backward to make loans to "them" under pressure from regulators. (Full disclosure: Five or six years ago, I sat in on the meetings at which the PJC study was hatched, so my name shows up in its acknowledgments.)

Once PJC Executive Director Jonathan Smith came on the line, the Voice of Reason hastened to denounce the group's study as "bunk." Asked by Jon Smith if he'd seen the study, Ron Smith blandly said no, he'd only read about it--but he had all these callers swearing that the mortgage business is bias-free. The host went on to declare that disparities in lending have nothing to do with racial discrimination; it's just that blacks, regardless of income, are simply not as creditworthy as whites. Lacking a five-year study of his own, how did Ron Smith know this? Why, his callers told him so. He scoffed at the idea that lenders engage in race-based discrimination as a matter of policy--a straw man of his own making. (Note to Ron: They don't, but when it was legal to do so, they did.)

Jonathan Smith--who told me he'd never heard of Ron Smith before getting a call from the latter's producer--was plainly unprepared for the V of R's style of "discussion." Hint for your next appearance, Jon: Boil your 248-page study into two or three sound bites that you can spit out before you get interrupted.

Since that broadcast, I've looked through the PJC report, which is illustrated with computer-generated maps showing, starkly, how mortgage credit flows to white folks while it trickles to blacks. Among other things, the authors found that some disparities in lending to black and white communities actually increased in the higher-income levels. Does this prove racial bias? No, because statistics can't show what goes on in the mind of a loan officer. But the study raises issues that need to be taken seriously. Ron Smith's pit-bull approach to the subject served only to betray his own prejudices. Good thing he's not a mortgage lender himself. The disturbing thing is that, to judge from the call-ins, there are lenders who listen to this guy.

Condemned

Do I detect a pattern? Some weeks ago, The Sun ran an editorial in favor of the west-side development scheme sponsored by the Weinberg Foundation, the University of Maryland, Peter Angelos, et al., and enabled by massive condemnation of property. If I may paraphrase, the basic thrust of the piece was, "It's time for the beeper stores and preservationists to get out of the way of progress." (And, as a friend of mine added, "Let the people who screwed up the area in the first place do what they want"--alluding to the late Harry Weinberg, who owned a vast swath of west-side commercial property and allowed it to deteriorate.) On May 16, the daily offered up more of the same pro-development partisanship, couched this time in sports metaphors.This editorial concerned Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger's move to condemn 39 properties in the Essex-Middle River area to make way for a waterfront recreational complex. Current property owners and residents have naturally resisted the taking of their businesses and homes, and they are petitioning to put Ruppersberger's condemnation law (which was approved by the state legislature) up for referendum in November. Dutch, in a show of press-conference bravado, signed their petition and challenged the anti-condemnation folks to seven debates on the topic.

The Sun's editorial writers marveled at Ruppersberger's "moxie" in taking on the owners and their allies and sneered that "no one--including [state] Del. Diane DeCarlo, his most vocal opponent--has volunteered to step up" to meet the exec's debate challenge. The editorial closed on a note of jockish admiration: "Mr. Ruppersberger, a former lacrosse player, knows how to go on the offensive and attack the goal. . . . Pity anyone who prevents him from making this score." Mercy.

In the west-side case, it's no great surprise that The Sun favors plans to develop upscale, mall-style retail complexes in place of crumbling century-old buildings occupied by very small businesses and, for God's sake, artists. On the east side, the paper's outright cheerleading might reflect more than a simple zest for the exercise of eminent domain. One of Ruppersberger's top advisors--and a key booster of the Essex-Middle River condemnations--is Elise Armacost, a former member of The Sun's editorial board.

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