Over the weekend, President Donald Trump released a series of tweets accusing Elijah Cummings, the House Oversight Committee chairman and Democratic congressman, of neglecting his "rat and rodent infested mess" of a congressional district. "No human being would want to live there," the president wrote of Cummings' district, in response to Cummings calling conditions at the United States–Mexico border "inhumane."
Cummings' 7th District is a large and diverse one; it encompasses suburbs north and west of the city of Baltimore that are among the wealthiest in the nation. But Trump, whose outburst was apparently triggered by a segment on Fox News' Fox and Friends that aired Saturday morning, wasn't talking about those places: He was talking about West Baltimore, a high-poverty area that is predominantly African American.
Trump's use of the the word "infest" in tweets to an African-American congressman to describe a majority-black city is part of a larger pattern, as many critics quickly pointed out. "This talk of infestation is telling, because he only seems to apply it to issues concerning black and brown people," wrote Charles M. Blow in the New York Times. Journalist Alex Cole tweeted a rundown of the times Trump had used variations on the word infest.
The president's tweets have been widely condemned, though only a handful of Republicans, including Maryland Lieutenant Governor Boyd K. Rutherford and The View co-host Meghan McCain, have voiced muted criticism. Trump, as is typical, has doubled-down in a series of follow-up tweets aimed at other targets, including Baltimore-born Representative Nancy Pelosi and commentator Al Sharpton. Like so many social media eruptions from the White House, this one may soon be overshadowed. But before that happens, it's worth pausing to consider the financial and political stakes of a powerful person's language.
Trump is hardly the first to use the words he chose to describe whole populations: Ideas about infestation have long been weaponized to justify the systemic discrimination of African Americans. The term carries a long history of financial gain through racist dispossession. And that phenomenon has a special resonance in Baltimore.
Over the 20th century, Baltimore became a laboratory for white policymakers to experiment with implementing racial discrimination. Often, the process was justified with the coded language of rooting out infestation. On the surface, this might have looked like race-neutral language that was addressing disease, rodents, or environmental hazards. But scratch that surface and it quickly becomes clear that the city's leaders were using the language of public health to restrict where African Americans could live.
As I write in my forthcoming book Building Suburban Power: The Business of Exclusionary Housing Markets, one of the most infamous and widely used tools of residential racial segregation had its origins in Baltimore. At the turn of the 20th century, suburban development companies bought large tracts of land on the periphery of the growing city. Among the most influential was the Roland Park Company, which created some of Baltimore's first restricted communities governed by a new tool: the restrictive covenant. These documents were legal contracts that had historically been applied to single lots. The Roland Park Company had a different idea: make them community-wide.
To do that, they looked to existing "nuisance laws" that cities used to regulate property in order to prevent health hazards such as rat infestations. The Roland Park Company filled its covenants with rules about what property owners could and could not do. In the middle of the covenants' nuisance clause, the company added a racial restriction—the first of its kind in Baltimore. The restriction, which prohibited blacks from living in Roland Park subdivisions, was sandwiched between environmental regulations about livestock and smoke. The company widely disseminated the restrictive covenants throughout the country. Racially restrictive covenants, as a result, are derived from language that directly pertained to animal infestation.
In 1910, two decades after the Roland Park Company's founding, an African-American attorney named W. Ashbie Hawkins crossed the color line to buy a rowhouse in a white section of West Baltimore, sparking an uproar among white residents. These residents also organized to lobby for a law that would drive the attorney out of the neighborhood. Baltimore passed the first residential segregation ordinance in the country. It designated every block in the city as white or black and banned Baltimoreans from moving to a street that did not match their race. The ordinance, described by the New York Times as "the most pronounced Jim Crow measure on record," inspired a slew of copycat laws.
The ordinance was quickly overturned on a technicality, but over the next several years, white Baltimoreans mounted a pressure campaign to ensure the passage of three subsequent versions. Throughout this struggle, the Baltimore Sun published letters to the editor equating black presence in Baltimore with infestation. One, on December 4th, 1911, called for the city to "take action against the hundreds of dissolute, lazy, and dissipated colored people who infest the back alleys with their wickedness."
Baltimore's segregation ordinance was finally struck down by the Supreme Court in 1917. But the use of racially restrictive covenants only grew in response, and so did efforts by policymakers to link African Americans in Baltimore with disease.
In the 1930s, city planners and realtors associated the movement of African Americans into neighborhoods as a sign of decline, and again, Baltimore became home to a first: a pilot program in which local realtors and neighborhood groups teamed with lenders and government agencies to stop this "blight." The report organizers released spelled out the links clearly: Once African Americans moved into an area, it would become blighted, providing "the breeding ground for dependence, degradation, and crime." The program's organizers concluded that more Baltimore neighborhoods should adopt restrictive covenants.
Policymakers made blight prevention a goal of federal redlining policies, whose name came from maps drawn by a federal agency, the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, that graded cities like Baltimore by the risks neighborhoods posed for mortgage lending. The HOLC included as criteria percent "infiltration." Much of majority-black West Baltimore was redlined, and the area expanded as the HOLC equated it with infestation; HOLC rated adjoining areas poorly because of the likelihood African Americans might move in. Its appraisers were likely to collapse distinctions of class, architectural variety, or vibrancy in mixed-race or majority-black areas. Today, neighborhood maps of Baltimore's income, health, and crime disparities closely follow these 1930s documents, and the policies pioneered in that era continue to fuel the kind of racist rhetoric Trump tweeted.
The infestation language of the past century not only helped create the current disinvested state of West Baltimore: It has defined the whole landscape of American discrimination. In other places, immigrant communities faced restrictive covenants, ordinances, and redlining policies. That process continues today. Indeed, the inhumane and dangerous conditions in which immigrants are being held along the U.S.–Mexico border—the issue that Trump took to Twitter to deny on Saturday—is nothing if not a modern manifestation of the racism that shaped Baltimore more than a century ago.
Like so many real estate developers before him, Trump has long profited from the rhetorical and legal apparatus of segregation. Today, he's carrying on this profiteering in a direct as well as symbolic way. While the president attacks Baltimore, his son-in-law, White House adviser Jared Kushner, is busy extracting wealth from the region: His company runs a series of low-income Baltimore County housing complexes that have racked up hundreds of code violations. A 2017 ProPublica report detailed the substandard conditions afflicting residents of Baltimore's "Kushnervilles." Among the complaints about these housing complexes: They are infested by mice.