Black Social Capital


  • Book Review- Black Social Capital by Marion Orr



Black Social Capital, written by Marion Orr, is a work aimed at examining successful education reform movements in Baltimore. Orr frames his historical analysis through the lens of Social Capital Theory, outlined in the beginning chapters of the book. Social capital is defined as the “ability to work together to achieve social ends.” Orr is particularly interested in what he calls “intergroup social capital,” or the ability for different groups in society – in this case, the poor, black population of Baltimore and their more affluent, white counterparts – to build social capital and collaborate towards certain ends – in this case, education reform. Orr seeks to additionally supplement this analysis with what he calls “regime theory,” where he also attempts to locate the role of local government in fostering cooperation and responding to political demands. Orr’s basic thesis is that while social capital is important to the advancement of political demands, considerations of inter-grouping and access to power are crucial. In Baltimore, the poor, black population wished to implement certain educational reforms. Orr attempts to demonstrate that those demands were actualized via coalition with and support from other organizations and that the success of such reforms was additionally contingent upon the local government’s dedication to their implementation.

Orr begins his historical considerations with a brief history of black people in Baltimore. As Orr is describing cooperation between blacks and whites as a necessity, one begins to wonder as to why black citizens cannot actualize their political demands on their own. The majority of Baltimore is black and those that lack access to adequate educational resources constitute a significant portion of the population. Orr’s genealogy hopes to demonstrate why social capital among poor, black Baltimoreans alone is not enough. While Baltimore was historically a harbor for free blacks, both in the Antebellum era and post-Civil War, segregation kept most black individuals locked out of dominant institutions and prevented them from developing any sort of significant economic power in a context beyond their communities. This became evident post-integration, when many black businesses took a fall due to the competition from more powerful, white institutions. A history of racial oppression, then, is what has barred black Baltimoreans from possessing a strong, economic and political power. This also comes up in Orr’s discussion of Baltimore politics. Baltimore has historically operated through the use of patronage and political machines. This demonstrates that the political dynamic in Baltimore primarily rested upon whites, in smaller numbers, possessing the power to offer blacks jobs in return for their political support in large numbers for a long period of time. This support was often at the expense of black Baltimore’s own political concerns and perpetuated forms of racial domination.

While Orr’s work is an effective political history, his reading and advancement of Social Capital Theory and the augmentations of it he prescribes do not always hit the mark. His analysis can be sparse and at points in the book, it can be unclear what exactly his vignettes demonstrate about social capital. At other points in the book, he actually contradicts his arguments regarding cooperation and coalition. Throughout the middle section of the book, Orr focuses on the political economy in relation to city schools, the prospect of site-based management in schools, and the innovative implementations of the Barclay-Calvert collaboration and the Stadium School movement in Baltimore. Although a direct link can be found between Baltimore’s political economy and black social capital, Orr limits himself in his analysis and connection between the two. There are simply a couple of terse concluding paragraphs at the end of each chapter that touch on the intergroup capital between whites and blacks due to the changing political landscape. A deeper analysis on the intersections of race, the political economy, and social capital would have been more valuable to the text. Where Orr moves forward in such analysis is through his discussion on the actors, groups, and institutions involved in the implementation of Site-Based Management in schools. Site-Based Management (SBM) involves giving more decision-making powers regarding education to localities and schools rather than to state or national governments. Orr brings to light the divide in the black community due to the power struggle between the black mayor, Kurt Schmoke (who supported SBM), the black Superintendent, Richard Hunter (who opposed SBM), and labor unions (that also opposed SBM). In doing so, Orr offers a clear and powerful critique on the consequences of what can occur when a lack of black social capital invested in one area can hinder progress. The closing chapter of the middle section indicates further how black social capital carries this significance, as the successfully implemented Barclay-Calvert initiative of new advanced curriculum is heavily credited to the hard work and advocacy of black principal of the Barclay School, Gertrude Williams. Additionally, the success of the Stadium School, which was “the first public school in Baltimore operated by parents and teachers who have increased authority”, also spoke to the importance of social capital in the success of neighborhood mobilization. The specific details of the two initiatives are strong points of his documentation and analysis of Baltimore’s education system, as he lays out an even balance of context and analysis.

In Chapters 7 and 8, Orr shifts the focus of his retelling to the role of private entities in school reform. Chapter 9 then moves to an analysis of statewide politics in Maryland and elaborates how Baltimore’s educational and financial needs related to the demands of other counties. Orr’s analysis of social capital throughout this section is sparse. Chapter 8 features an account of Baltimore’s reaction to public school outsourcing to private contractors. Parents, teachers, and civic groups overwhelmingly did not favor the private takeover, which ultimately would prove to fail. However, Orr only dedicates a page to analyzing social capital here, and his analysis is primarily centered on the black social capital utilized to resist the takeover by Education Alternatives Inc. Lacking is any analysis of access to resources or the “regime theory” Orr outlines in his introduction. Chapter 9 is far more lacking in this regard. Orr details here the complications that arise when Baltimore is placed in a statewide political context. However, the chapter makes little reference to any of the theories Orr discusses throughout the book.

Chapter 7 focuses on two programs, the Baltimore Commonwealth and far more briefly, CollegeBound. If anything, the chapter works to counteract Orr’s most basic premises. The primary business collective in Baltimore, the GBC (Greater Baltimore Committee), came under fire in 1983 due to their severely lackluster track record regarding Baltimore high school graduate hires. Thus, BUILD, a grassroots activist organization, began to implore the GBC to actively recruit recent graduates of the city’s public school system. This was realized through Baltimore Commonwealth, which guaranteed job interviews and priority placement for students who hit certain standards. That BUILD and the GBC could come together and implement the Commonwealth, with mayoral support, is seen by Orr as a prime example of intergroup social capital developing and allowing for a broader range of resources by which to enact change. However, the moments that spurred the actual creation of the Commonwealth often feel more like blackmail and leveraging than collaboration. BUILD accumulated a series of reports that strongly indicated hiring biases and low levels of African-American upper-management within companies under the GBC. The GBC could endorse the basic tenets of the Commonwealth, but many GBC members were more conservative regarding the specifics, which caused disputes. As these disputes intensified and garnered further publicity, BUILD threatened to leak the reports, which moved the GBC to cooperate far more quickly. This does not read as an example of mutual engagement, but rather as the black political leaders of Baltimore calling out the business sector on their unethical practices and threatening public humiliation in the absence of action.

These ambiguities are not so much meant to undermine the value of Orr’s scholarship, but rather reframe it. Black Social Capital does a wonderful job at providing an expansive account of Baltimore local politics, specifically education reform, over the course of the latter half of the 20th century. However, while Orr’s emphasis on social capital is helpful at times, as a framework by which to evaluate his work, it cannot be drawn directly to every instance Orr wishes in a meaningful sense. Black Social Capital would have fared much better as a historical narrative where the theoretical frameworks Orr describes take a referential place in relation to the narrative, rather than inscribing meaning into the narrative and inscribing the narrative itself.