WASHINGTON, April 21, 2015 — Baltimore is burning.
The flash point for this week’s violence may have been the funeral for Freddie Gray, the young man who died in police custody. Yet Gray’s story is sadly not unique in the Charm City. This week is the result of series of interactions between the people of Baltimore — especially the black population — and the government — particularly the police force.
Everyone has an opinion on why this happened and where to cast blame. Perhaps a better question is why it could happen, how a city could erupt so spectacularly into lawlessness.
Obviously, questioning the circumstances around Gray’s interaction with police and eventual death is extremely valid; it’s hard to argue with a citizenry who wants answers from law enforcement for the use of force. Anger and frustration are logical reactions, especially given recent history.
Yet why did this anger and frustration have to manifest itself in violence and crime? What created the environment where distrust and resentment between a community and its government manifests in such extreme ways? How could bad players (the people who let their temper boil over into destruction or, worse, who exploited the civil unrest as an excuse to steal or inflict damage) become so prominent?
Maybe it has something to do with missing dads.
According to 2010 census data, 63% of Baltimore’s kids under six years old are in single-parent homes. The lack of fathers among this group is particularly striking — 84% of those kids are being brought up by a single mom.
Fatherless families are an often-cited national epidemic in black communities; 83% of African-American children can expect to reach their 17th birthday without their dad in the picture.
These numbers are staggering, and made more so by data which suggests family structure has a profound effect on criminal behavior, poverty, and other factors which have exacerbated the situation in Baltimore this week.
A 2004 study in the Journal of Research on Adolescence showed that the absence of a father in the household doubles the chance that a young man will wind up in prison (even controlling for socioeconomic factors).
Forty-four percent of families with absent fathers live in poverty, compared with 12% of two-parent households.
Fatherhood is important enough that the United States Department of Health and Human Services has a website, the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, offering resources to help dads out.
Perhaps Baltimore city council member Brandon Scott was on to something when he said, “Adults have to step up and be adults, and take control of our children.”
Maybe better family structures would have helped focus the energy on display in Baltimore this week more productively.
In the Fall of 1812, Francis Scott Key sat in the Chesapeake Bay wondering if Baltimore could withstand British bombardment. In Spring of 2015, many are again watching Baltimore from afar, and again wondering how the city will hold up.
In the aftermath, political leaders will surely call for political solutions — and some political solutions and reforms are surely necessary. If there are bad actors on the police force, they ought to be found and prosecuted. If the community and the police force are at odds, something needs to change.
Yet the problems which made Baltimore so incendiary to begin with run deeper than politics — so the solutions will have to go deeper, as well.