Lawrence Brown

In UMB’s MLK Celebration keynote speech, research scientist plans to talk about how civil rights leader’s principles can be used to address inequity in Baltimore.

Over the next three weeks, The Elm will feature stories on the keynote speaker and the three Diversity Recognition Award winners leading up to UMB’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month celebration from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. Register here to attend.

Today: Keynote speaker Lawrence T. Brown, PhD, MPA

It was 2015 when Lawrence Brown had an idea that would metamorphose into a book and public health initiatives examining the harmful policies and practices that led to Baltimore’s segregation.

Brown, a research scientist, educator, equity scientist, and urban Afrofuturist who is the keynote speaker Feb. 8 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month Celebration, was examining a map of Baltimore’s racial geography when he drew circles around parts of the city.

“As soon as I did that, I looked at the pattern of green dots, which represented African Americans, and that pattern in East Baltimore and West Baltimore looked like the wings of the butterfly,” said Brown, who also noticed the middle was an “L” shape of white neighborhoods. “It seemed very apparent to me that this was a pattern I could refer to if I want to talk about how Baltimore is very segregated.”

He was further inspired by rapper Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly.

“I thought about his title, which signified for me how something beautiful can be exploited, damaged, and harmed. So I coined the phrase in that moment, ‘Black Butterfly.’ With that thought in mind, here’s something beautiful: Black neighborhoods that are being harmed and exploited by different policies and practices like redlining, subpriming, hyperpolicing, and hypersegregation.”

Brown, who works for the new Center for Urban Health Equity at Morgan State University, published his first book, “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America,” in 2021. The book examines Baltimore’s history of segregation; the policies, practices, and systems that caused it; and its impact on the health and well-being of the city’s Black residents.

In it, he writes that “racial equity starts with a reckoning.”

“A reckoning entails starting with an accounting and historical analysis that says, ‘Here’s what was done,’ ” he said. “Then there’s an acknowledgment that ‘Yes, we did this, and now we have an obligation to repair and commence that process.’ ”

Brown says he wants readers to walk away from his book with an understanding of his five steps for a racial equity process: a deep historical understanding of the trauma inflicted; identifying and stopping all forms of trauma; making decision-making participatory and democratic; ensuring community ownership and wealth-generating stake in all programs; and making corrective budget allocations to heal the damage of the historical trauma.

“Equity should not be this fuzzy-wuzzy, feel-good concept,” said Brown, who was honored in 2018 with a Bold Thinker award by Open Society Institute-Baltimore for sparking critical discourse regarding Baltimore’s racial segregation. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion shouldn’t be a check-the-box exercise. It involves real work with the deep understanding of making decision-making participatory and then making sure that budgets are reallocated to help heal and repair the damage that was done.”

For his Feb. 8 virtual speech at UMB, Brown intends to talk about King’s principles and how they can be used to address inequalities and inequity in Baltimore. He will highlight one of the central issues that King fought for: fair housing.

“In many ways the inverse of that — unfair housing — is the story of Baltimore City,” Brown said. “And it really outlines what I call urban apartheid in Baltimore City, how the city created it and how the city maintains it.”

Hypersegregated Cities and COVID-19

Brown said that legacy is still being felt today as Black communities have been affected disproportionately by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The ZIP codes that were being hit are in the butterfly; the majority of the people that were dying were in the butterfly,” said Brown, adding that COVID-19 also greatly affects rural areas. “Places that had lower levels of resources are where people were the most exposed and experienced the greatest burden due to COVID-19.”

He pointed out that Baltimore’s legacy as the first city to pass a residential racial zoning law in 1910 still resonates with other hypersegregated cities that followed Baltimore’s lead.

“COVID has impacted other cities, which are also hypersegregated in large part due to the example that Baltimore set,” Brown said. “This virus is not only having an impact on our city, it also has an impact on the nation. And that’s a part of that reckoning that has to be really wrestled with.”

He said his field — public health — played a role because Baltimore officials used public health data to justify racial segregation. Health officials quarantined Black people in their neighborhoods during tuberculosis, cholera, and yellow fever outbreaks.

“The irony is that 100 years later, you have a pandemic that is impacting communities in part that were racially segregated based on the field of public health itself,” Brown said. “And that cycle, that circle, that reckoning also has to be recognized.”

A Connection with King

Brown said King inspired him to go to Morehouse College in Atlanta because “if it was good enough for Dr. King, it’s good enough for me.”

Brown, whose mother is a minister/pastor and whose grandfather was a Baptist pastor, said he felt a kinship with King because of their similar backgrounds.

“I was very influenced and enthralled by his social justice, or the social gospel, because I’m a product of the Black church,” he said.

He said his favorite King speech is “The Other America” in which King says there are two Americas — one white and one Black — and that America “has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.” 

“He’s speaking to the anger, the frustration. He says, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ He’s speaking much more about here’s the root of our civil unease, our civil disorder, our urban uprising. That’s where you get this powerful sociological analysis,” Brown said.

In his position at Morgan State, Brown is working on the Black Butterfly Rising Initiative, which builds on the information in his book. The project includes developing a history exhibit about Baltimore and creating a website called the Black Butterfly Data and Impact Hub, where users could look at statistics such as bank lending, rent and mortgage burden, and crime.

He is also working with colleagues at the University of Chicago on a mapping project examining America’s legacy of apartheid.

“I want to have national maps that highlight what happened to Black people or Black neighborhoods so that researchers and others can begin to have a much greater appreciation of how Black spaces and Black communities have been impacted,” he said.

The final component is ensuring that Black neighborhoods matter and thrive with urban planning and architecture, community gardens, urban farms, and community health workers.

“It’s saying, ‘Here are practical steps you can take; policies, practices, systems, and budgets that you can employ; approaches you can take to improve Black neighborhoods, Black spaces, Black communities,’ ” Brown said. “That’s the overall vision of what the Black Butterfly Rising Initiative is all about.”






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