In the back of a police van, Freddie Gray suffered a severe spine injury and died a week later. And while the police crept behind a wall of silence about how this could have happened, Baltimore erupted. Six officers were charged Friday on manslaughter and murder charges. Meanwhile, the nation is looking for explanations, and finding that the violence in Baltimore appears to be about more than the horrific death of one man.
The Washington Post uncovered data showing that there was “shocking inequality” in the city. Forbes carefully laid out that “Baltimore burned” because of a 19.1 percent unemployment rate, a black infant mortality rate that is nine times higher than that for white babies, and an overall “20-year difference in the average life expectancy” between blacks and whites. The inequality, Forbes concluded, was simply “staggering.”
There was a similar script in August about the conditions in Ferguson, Mo. After the killing of Michael Brown, the nearly 70 percent black St. Louis suburb went up in flames. America was shocked. Apparently, the teen’s violent death was just the most visible sign of something fundamentally wrong in the heartland. The Brookings Institute, for example, pointed out that “by 2008-2012 almost all of Ferguson’s neighborhoods had poverty rates at or above the 20 percent threshold.” The Washington Post revealed that the patchwork of city police in St. Louis County were not there to protect and serve but, rather to extract from African Americans “40 percent or more” of the cities’ “annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts.”
These revelations fueled outrage, indignation, and some soul-searching. But change? Probably not. Not as long as we stay on the same script we used nearly 50 years ago.
In the late 1960s, after Cleveland, Watts, Newark, and Detroit went up in flames, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned a study to determine what happened and why. In city after city, the catalyst appeared to be an incident of police brutality. But the Kerner Commission surmised that the brutality was only the tip of the iceberg. Something more fundamental had gone wrong. In the mid- to late 1960s, black unemployment was nearly three times that of whites’, African Americans made 73 cents on the dollar of comparably credentialed whites, the infant mortality rate was 58 percent higher than whites, and poverty was pervasive, multi-tentacled, and strangling the life out of black America.
Despite the starkness of the data, Harvard professor Stephen Thernstrom later argued forcefully that “the commission was wildly mistaken in its claims that the socioeconomic condition of black America was deteriorating, and that the country was splitting into ‘two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.’” Instead, he saw “dramatic progress.”
Dramatic, yes. Progress? Only if the baseline is chattel slavery. If the goal is equal opportunity, then that is another story entirely. Or, as Forbes columnist Dan Diamond recently observed, “Life in Baltimore is a tale of two cities”: The one near Johns Hopkins University, where he grew up, and the one where Freddie Gray died.
Public policy built those two cities. In a brilliant Atlantic essay last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates noted, “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy” have done exactly what they were supposed to do. And yet the public remains shocked at the intolerable living conditions created in its name.
So, in 2015, are we going to trot out the same old, tired script and once again, ignore the consequences of public policies that propose stadiums, tax credits for “economic development,” and other similar initiatives as the trickle down panacea for systemic human rights violations in housing, health care, education, and employment? Will we reward politicians for debunked and failed policies that allow us to slip easily into the cocoon of “law and order” and somehow equate the lack of visible flames with peace?
If so, we will once again be outraged at yet another killing and city ablaze. And then, of course, we will devour some report explaining that this new riot was the culmination of widespread poverty and human rights violations. And we will be shocked. Right on cue.
Carol Anderson is associate professor of African American Studies at Emory University and author of “Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941-1960.’’