WASHINGTON, May 1, 2015 – The recent death of Freddie Gray, a young African-American, while in police custody in Baltimore has produced the usual charges of “white racism.” The media is also comparing this situation with the death of another young black man in Ferguson, Mo., several months ago, as well as similar incidents in North Charleston, S.C., and Staten Island, N.Y. Each of these cases is different, and characterizing them as part of a single pattern of police behavior may be missing the reality of what is, in fact, taking place.
In Ferguson, for example, the community was majority black and the police force was largely white. In Baltimore, however, the mayor, city council president, police commissioner and nearly half of its 3,000-member police force are black. It is unlikely that young black men are being unfairly targeted by black city officials on the basis of race.
What we see in Baltimore’s inner city, a breakdown of family life, massive unemployment, drug use and school drop-outs, has not been created by “white racism.” There are many, far more complex causes for the problems Baltimore faces.
Baltimore was once a city where tens of thousands of blue collar employees earned a good living in industries building cars and airplanes and making steel.
Thomas J. Vicino, the author of “Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore,” points to major manufacturing facilities operated by Bethlehem Steel, General Motors and Martin Marietta. In 1970, about a third of the labor force in Baltimore was employed in manufacturing. By 2000, only 7 per cent of city residents had manufacturing jobs, and losses have been continuing.
Dr. Vicino, a professor at Northeastern University and a Maryland native, argues, “We need to reframe the problem more broadly than racial profiling and police brutality….The bigger context is the globalization of the economy, technological change and de-industrialization. This is a double whammy for poor black people left in the city. They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”
Professor William Julius Wilson of Harvard, who teaches a course based on “The Wire,” the HBO show set in Baltimore, says, “Regular employment provides the anchor for the spatial and temporal aspects of daily life, it determines where you are going to be and when you are going to be there. In the absence of regular employment, life, including family life, becomes less coherent.”
Globalization, as embodied at the present time by the Trans-Pacific Partnership, promotes what it calls “free” trade. Yet some critics, both on the right and left, argue that trade which is not also “fair” puts Americans at a great disadvantage. American corporations must pay a minimum wage, obey OSHA rules about worker safety, follow environmental regulations and deal with labor unions. None of this is true for companies in China, Bangladesh, Indonesia or India, among others. Is such “free” trade really “free”?
Beyond all of this is the very real breakdown of the black family in our inner cities, where 72 percent of babies are born to single mothers. Children with absent fathers commit more crimes and are more likely to drop out of school. In his book “The Best Parent Is Both Parents,” David Levy, who served as president of the Children’s Rights Council, reported that neither poverty nor race, but the fragile structure of the family, is the primary cause of crime.
Douglas A. Smith and G. Roger Jarjoura published findings in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency analyzing victimization data on over 11,000 individuals from three urban areas. They discovered that the proportion of single-parent households in a community predicts its rate of violent crime and burglary while poverty level does not. Furthermore, the percentage of non-whites in an area has “no significant influence on rates of violent crime.”
Because so many Americans have, in large numbers, abandoned the responsibility of child-rearing, many young people are particularly vulnerable to the inducements of the drug culture. Dr. Lorenzo Merritt of Project HEAVY West, a nonprofit counseling center in Los Angeles that tries to help children stay out of jail, said that they join gangs and the drug culture “fundamentally because of a need for acceptance and identity. It generally means an absence of a cohesive…family life where there is a sense of belonging and respect.”
If black men are committing crime out of proportion to their numbers, it is important to consider the reason. According to a recent report issued by the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, by age 17, only 17 percent of black teenagers live with two married parents. Professor Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociologist who is black, has published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education lamenting that “fearful” sociologists had abandoned “studies of the cultural dimensions of poverty, particularly black poverty,” and declared that the discipline had become “largely irrelevant.”
Patterson asks: “Why are so many black men in jail? Is it because cops, prosecutors, judges and juries are racist because they are turning a blind eye to white robbers and drug dealers?…I don’t think so. If it were so, that would be easier to address…The percentage of young men not working or not enrolled in school is nearly twice as high for blacks as it is for whites…Young people in those neighborhoods too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison, and with that inheritance they become part of the police officer’s life and shape the way that officer, whether white or black, sees the world. Changing that legacy is a challenge so enormous and so complicated that it is, unfortunately, easier to talk only about the cops. And that’s not fair.”
In Baltimore, 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose death in police custody has led to the growing unrest in the city, grew up in Sandtown-Winchester, one of Baltimore’s most impoverished and crime-ridden communities. It has the highest incarceration rate in the state, an unemployment rate of over 50 percent for males ages 16 to 64 and a medium household income of under $25,000, according to research from the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative.
Gray’s rap sheet was a long one. His criminal history started in July 2007 with an arrest on charges of “possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute.” Overall, he had more than a dozen arrests, mostly drug-related. The latest was in March on a charge of “possession of a controlled dangerous substance.”
Drugs are a major reason why police patrolled Gray’s neighborhood. David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and a former Baltimore Sun journalist, says, “the drug war…was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust…. The drug war was as much a function of class and social control as it was of racism.”
The real issues in Baltimore go beyond questions of racism and police behavior. Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Legislative Office of the Fraternal Order of Police, says, “The real issue is poverty and lack of quality education, lack of economic opportunity, a decaying city infrastructure, lack of sound parenting and mentorship.
“These kids, the odds are against them from the time of their conception, and it’s a very, very convenient political outlet to blame the police for things that go on in the inner cities. But the fact of the matter is that these are problems that generations of bad elected leadership has resulted in.”
The Baltimore Police Department has numerous outreach programs that connect police with underprivileged families and give communities a chance to communicate directly with officers. It holds monthly council meetings throughout the city where community leaders can express concerns over issues in their neighborhoods. Some community leaders have even been placed on boards that determine executive promotions within the police departments.
There have been some hopeful signs amidst the chaos in Baltimore. After rioting, residents by the hundreds cleaned debris from streets and stores that had been looted. Churches organized food drives for neighborhoods hit by rioting, and teachers, who knew that closed schools meant children would go without meals, set up food stations in churches.
Police and firefighters, the targets of rage when rioting began, were inundated with cakes, pies and thanks for their service. Church, community and political leaders took to the streets to urge calm and help enforce the curfew.
Events in Baltimore highlight the crisis being faced in our inner cities–from a variety of causes, from the de-industrialization of our urban areas due to globalization to the breakdown of the black family and the absence of fathers in the home.
No problems can be confronted or resolved if they are misdiagnosed.
The charge of “white racism,” in reality, is the scapegoat for the problems in Baltimore and other urban areas, not the real culprit.