Baltimore in flames: Race in America

The Times ran a front-page headline Tuesday that almost made me chuckle: “Police Rethink Long Tradition of Using Force.” As I turned to A13 to learn more about the 21-foot rule, which states that a police officer has the right to kill you if you are holding a knife while standing that far away from him, I saw another headline: “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds.” I wondered if the next day they’d run stories titled “Teen Rethinks Reckless Driving After 15th Accident” and “Parents Growing Frustrated with High Insurance Bill.”

The spate of police killings this year and overwhelming proportion of black victims raise the typical concerns over policing tactics. They should also serve as a reminder that we live in a sharply divided society, in which significant numbers of black people are relegated to crime-infested inner city neighborhoods. This rampant segregation is what fuels tensions, and replacing Dirty Harry with Officer Friendly won’t change this—only an aggressive and determined effort to invest in and break up our racial ghettos will serve as a solution.

We’ve made a lot of progress on race relations in this country. We have an African-American president, attorney general, and a lot more African-Americans in high professions. For millions, however, this PC nomenclature simply doesn’t apply: they are black, and they live stuffed in ghettos lined with decrepit rows of houses, liquor stores, and loan sharking operations with names like Payday Loan and Cash Advance. Most are food deserts and have no grocery stores for miles.

These slums have arisen from a history of institutionalized and socialized housing practices that segregate poor black people in areas where their prospects range from dismal to nonexistent. Here, children go to terrible and underfunded schools where they don’t learn much and eat awful food. When they reach their teens, they are preyed upon by police and often build long rap sheets, bouncing in and out of broken juvenile systems before graduating to metal cages packed with criminals. Drug abuse and self-medication run rampant.

Chicago’s South Side, West Baltimore, and East Camden are just a few of the many areas we have cordoned off from mainstream society. Their residents live in the shadows, but their presence is reflected in swollen county jails and violent crime rates that flirt with the high ’80s.

In April, Baltimore police killed 25-year-old Freddie Gray after arresting him for the possession of what turned out to be a legal, spring-assisted knife. He was black, and overtly it was this all-too familiar killing of a black man by white cops that provoked mass demonstrations and riots. Gray’s death was certainly a catalyst. But the situation I just described—racial ghettos left to fester and breed misery—is the root of the violence.

Racists attempt to discredit the protests by pointing to the destruction. Sympathizers, many of them white bloggers and Redditors who wouldn’t go within ten miles of Baltimore’s blighted Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, cite the more peaceful demonstrations. I’m not a fan of mincing words: these were often just riots.

In this unconscionable situation, however, violence is completely understandable, even predictable. Blacks from Baltimore’s slums have every right to be enraged by a society that has abandoned them and trots out the same feeble calls for body cameras or better policing every time a cop murders someone. Body cameras may reduce the body count, but they will do nothing to heal the sense of isolation and disenfranchisement that haunts these slums.

We acted shocked and disappointed when the protests turned violent, but riots aren’t all that surprising in ghettos; see Warsaw, Poland, 1942. And white people riot all the time. Recall the recent Surfing Open at Huntington Beach and the infamous Pumpkin Riot in New Hampshire. The difference was that these were merry occasions so it’s supposed to be cute and all in good fun. Also, the perpetrators were white, so no calls for the leaders of their community to “step up” and “take responsibility.”

The looting in Baltimore was opportunistic. But much of the destruction reflects genuine grievances and complete lack of faith in the institutions of civil society. Are we really going to tell these people they should seek systemic change through peaceful organization? Or by lobbying their city councilman or (white) governor? Being peaceful about it and answering calls for order from white politicians has gotten these people nowhere. I can’t endorse violence, but we are a society that worships it, and if I had grown up in the Gilmor Home Projects—Freddie Gray’s derelict neighborhood—I’d probably be rioting too.

Rather than plugging our noses and trying to marginalize or dismiss the violence, we should look it square in the eye and consider the difference between a hopelessly poor, unemployed black man who rightly feels abandoned by society smashing the windshield of a police cruiser and a white kid in board shorts gleefully tipping over port-o-potties. The latter is hooliganism. The former is an expression of well-placed anguish and rage. Our society has a responsibility to listen and act, not admonish the rioters.

James Queen

James Queen

James Queen

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