The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, May 16, 2015
Current Affairs ... Society ...

The title of this essay comes from Randy Newman’s 1977 song “Baltimore“.

As something of a wanna-be pundit, I find the recent “civil disturbances” in Baltimore (triggered by a fatal police incident) very frustrating because it is so difficult to digest and say anything useful about. Ditto for Ferguson, New York, Berkeley, Cleveland, and the other sites of current unrest over police shootings. The 1960’s (especially 1967) were a time of many civil disturbances in major cities (Detroit, Newark, Watts, Roxbury, etc.), where African American communities vented similar anger about aggressive police actions. It was fairly clear back then that the triggering police acts were just a spark that ignited a volatile underlying anger, which stemmed from a multitude of unjust social and economic conditions faced by black communities. And it seems reasonable enough to conclude that the same applies to the angst and frustration expressed by African-American leaders and communities responding to more recent police shootings involving unarmed victims such as Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Kimani Gray, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, et al. Police bias is certainly a part of it, but is far from the extent of it.

Unlike the 1960’s, however, it is more difficult for the nation as a whole to grasp the overarching social and economic injustices involved, and to see what can be done to fix them. The starting point for those who decry these injustices is racism, of course. The many fatal police incidents in and of themselves allegedly prove that racism is alive and well in the American criminal justice system, and thus by implication is rampant throughout all of our social institutions, large and small.

Unfortunately, however, when you look at the details of at least some of these police incidents, the alleged racist inspirations become more and more difficult to pin down. In some, it seems pretty clear that the mental equation “dark skin = likely criminal” was driving the situation. In others, that’s not so clear. Each case has its own nuances. In many cases, the victim himself appeared to have helped to escalate the situation by attempting to flee or otherwise resist arrest, and in some cases aggressively attacking the officers involved (at least it is claimed). In most instances, “good police practices” would arguably have not required the use of fatal force; by the same token, “good citizen practices” in dealing with police might also have helped avoid the unfortunate outcomes. Various psychological research on “implicit bias” has shown that white police often have subconscious racial biases in terms of evaluating how dangerous or guilty a given person might be. These tests also show that non-white police share approximately the same biases.

The responses to the recent Baltimore police killing of Freddy Gray have expanded beyond police injustice as to include the broader issues of poverty and economic destitution as suffered by many communities with large numbers of low-income African Americans, e.g. the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore. It’s obviously a bit harder to paint the Gray killing purely in racial terms, given that 3 of the 6 police officers were black, and the police chief and mayor of Baltimore are both black.

There is obviously a strong connection between poverty and criminal activity, such that even if it can’t be definitively established that institutional racism in the criminal justice system regularly victimizes innocent black citizens, it seemingly can be argued that ongoing racism throughout our political and economic institutions is forcing too many blacks into lives where crime is sometimes the best of the bad options open to them. Overall, the 2008 “Great Recession” was especially cruel to blacks of all economic standings. For example, the ratio of white to black family household net worth was 6 in 2001; by 2013, it doubled, to 12 (i.e., the average white American family has 12 times the household net worth of the average black family!). With regard to income, the percent change between 2009 to 2014 in real median income per capita was -2.6% for whites; for blacks, the number is -7.7%.

Personally, I agree that racism is not gone in America, and that its ugly legacy continues in both our criminal justice system and in our political and economic institutions. Admittedly, if a purely colorblind society could be achieved (and it probably could not), most of the victims of police shootings named above would probably be alive today. However, this does not definitely prove that the police and political leaders involved in these incidents are racists. As in Baltimore, the discussion is sometimes (not always, of course) focused more around the “secondary” or on-going effects of past racist practices than around the discriminatory decisions of any one modern official; or around sub-conscious, unintentional attitudes about skin color and racial background that continue today, sometimes with a partial level of justification depending upon the social context.

Given all of that, the big question becomes — WHAT CAN BE DONE TO CHANGE THIS, TO MAKE THINGS BETTER? Back in the 1960’s, it was easy for well-meaning reform-minded people to identify a variety of things that were holding African Americans and their communities back. These things were amenable to change by law or by economic or programmatic aid. Thus, President Lyndon Johnson oversaw the enactment of legislation outlawing institutional racial discrimination, and providing federal programs that would make life better for the victims of centuries of racial economic injustice (i.e., the Great Society social programs).
Unfortunately, we are in a different place today. Many “Great Society” programs continue to focus attention on the urban and rural poverty that blacks suffer disproportionately in our nation (albeit, at near-starvation funding levels). Affirmative action policies and voting law protections also continue, although they are increasingly being attacked by conservative politicians. But it is now approaching 50 years since these things started, and even though much progress was made, the Baltimore incident shows that government programs are not a panacea. A lot of conservatives argue that they are in fact the problem, that they promote dependency that locks families into poverty.

Personally I don’t agree, but by the same token, I wonder if government intervention has pretty much “picked the low hanging fruit”, has mostly accomplished what it can accomplish, and is now facing challenges that it finds increasingly difficult to respond to. Such as the problems of drug addiction, inadequate student performance in schools, one-parent families, and low wage levels offered in the workplace to people who lack specialized technical training.
I can understand why black leaders continue to cry out for something to be done in response to these ongoing problems. But again, just what can be done by government today to respond to them is a very problematic issue. Fifty years into “the Great Society”, we seem to be well into “diminishing returns” territory. Programs that might yet help some families are increasingly expensive, and thus less and less politically sustainable in an increasingly contentious and polarized political climate. One rising star among modern black thinkers, Ta-Nesesi Coates, seems to have given up on lobbying for more poverty aid and employment programs, and contends that one-shot payments to blacks as reparations for slavery (and the following generations of repression) are the only thing that can and should be done, courtesy of the power of the federal government. He certainly has a lot of good points and compelling arguments, but in a Tea Party world, his proposals are non-starters. Right or wrong, they just ain’t gonna happen. The guilt card isn’t going to work, even if morally justified. Not in an America that elected Barack Obama president (and where a potential black Republican candidate is not laughed off the map).

In fact, the more that black leaders and their well-intended white political supporters continue to push for high level governmental interventions in response to the recent “black community uprisings”, the more chance for reactionary responses on the part of conservative political forces. Even though the “black solidarity” of the 1960s led to many well-needed reforms in our government and society, it also helped to motivate a political countercurrent that helped to elect Richard Nixon as President in 1968, and thereafter paved the way for a series of increasingly conservative GOP Presidents (most notoriously Ronald Reagan and Bush the second). And even a Democratic President helped to undo many of the family supports enacted in the 1960s, i.e. Bill Clinton’s welfare reform (and yes, that is Bill Clinton’s baby, as he embraced it even if Newt Gingrich made it clear that he couldn’t avoid it).

I certainly am not saying that black leaders should stay quiet in the face of the many tragedies and injustices that their followers continue to suffer. But I hope that they will recognize that the situation is a lot more complex than it was in 1962 or 67. To be honest, I don’t think that Hilary Clinton’s election in 2016 is a certainty, and to the degree that conservatives continue to paint minority reactions to police shootings as a direct threat to non-affluent white families, the election of a Scott Walker or Marco Rubio becomes more and more imaginable. Louis Farrakhan is famous for putting out unrepresentative statements like “we will tear this goddam country up”; but even a more moderate Tavis Smiley recently said that protests and riots could become “the new normal” in America because of ongoing racism and poverty. To the degree that black leaders and their white supporters appear to threaten white working-class families (something that the great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. intentionally avoided), who themselves are struggling in a very difficult and fast-changing economic landscape, they will pave the way for more GOP victories, despite the “new demographics” and “Obama coalition” that some hail as guaranteeing most future presidencies to the Democrats.

So that’s what so frustrating about thinking and writing about Freddy Gray and Baltimore. It’s extremely difficult to put out a viable plan to heal the underlying illness; about the only thing I can suggest right now is that vocalizing the issue in the wrong way might make things even worse, given today’s political realities. (Admittedly, that thought is not much of a positive contribution.) I have spent a fair percentage of my adult career involved with a major urban area that suffers from similar maladies as Baltimore (i.e., Newark and Essex County, NJ). I previously worked for an urban redevelopment agency, helping to gain and manage federal grant funds from programs started in the late 60s. I now work in criminal justice.

I have thus interacted with people like Freddy Gray, and the cops that did him in. The efforts I have been involved with (both non-profit and criminal justice) definitely do lots of people lots of good, but they don’t change the tide. If we got a whole lot more money to vastly expand these programs, I’m still not sure that they would make the problems go away. These programs are in some ways wasteful and inefficient, and in many ways subject to diminishing returns.

Thus, I’m admittedly a bit pessimistic about what can be done, other than hoping for renewed economic growth that will lift all boats, as happened in the 1990s (when the number of civil disturbances hit a record low, the Rodney King riots in LA notwithstanding). But I’m open to new ideas as to what could bring opportunity and hope back to neighborhoods like Sandtown in Baltimore and Newark’s West Ward (as well as to ideas about how to make sure that police do their jobs professionally, especially in challenging environments like those two neighborhoods).
If Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tavis Smiley and other black voices could offer some positive suggestions along with their demands for justice, I think they would get a lot more political traction. Playing the guilt card for the sins of three or more generations ago just ain’t gonna cut it, even if white Americans still benefit from those ancient sins (although this isn’t so cut and dry either; unlike in Europe of old, more personal wealth today is of fairly recent creation, versus inheritance; thus, if significant parts of the population such as urban and rural black families continue to lag in their economic achievement, we all are somewhat the poorer for it, given our highly inter-dependent economy). Show us some schools, community police boards, housing programs and job preparation centers that really are making a difference to the poor. Show us how we might all be better off. At that point, I’d feel a whole lot less frustrated thinking and writing (and even working in) places like Baltimore.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:45 pm      

  1. Jim, I’d like to take a different approach to this whole problem you bring up. I tend to think our society is way far out on the “violence” end of things. I don’t even quite understand why.

    For instance, (and this may sound very far off the topic, but I think it is not): How is it that there is so much violence on TV these days? People seem unable to get enough of it. The other night I literally found something else to do as the only thing on TV was violence of one sort or another. At one point I remember seeing an ad for a program called, “Last Man Standing”. That is, about 12 men get in a cage (and even the term “cage” somehow makes me sick) and fight until literally the “last man is standing”.

    I find myself wondering what the purpose of this kind of thing is. Then too, there seems to be so much paranoia in society. Yes, to be sure: Sometimes it’s not paranoia; somebody might really be trying to hurt another. Yet, it’s become such in today’s society that people must take precaution traveling expressways here in the Midwest lest they be shot at randomly – and often color is not an issue at all in those cases.

    Oddly enough, all this reminds me of an article in the recent “Vanity Fair” magazine on PTSD by Sebastian Junger on PTSD. Very briefly, the author maintains that the problem (with PTSD and here I’d like to extend it to the problem with violence and fear in our society) is technology and the isolation it brings to individuals when we are made to be a social species.

    I see several things wrong with this article such as his tendency to say “it could be”, “it may be” too many times – oh so unscientific; but when have I ever let that stop me? I think he has a point and I like where he goes with his ideas.

    He maintains that technology has brought us to a place where interaction with each other, the “safety” of being together no longer exists. Children are trained to sleep alone in a dark room, couples sleep together and not with the entire family where the “safety” of the family is a real basis for the security they want to feel. He blames PTSD on “oxytocin withdrawal”.

    It seems to me that it’s not just the races that are afraid of each other and/or even want to keep one group suppressed; it’s that they are simply afraid of how their life might change should they allow people different from themselves enter their society. One religious group refuses to accept another religious group. It seems to me that the white collar and blue collar groups used to be more accepting of each other; now it seems there are greater gaps between the “haves” and the “have nots”.

    Junger says that scientific tests have shown that it is oxytocin that causes the bonds among those in society. I find myself wondering if there might be less violence in society, less paranoia leading to the deaths of so many of these innocent people, less fear of others who do not do what we want them to do, who do not live as we “think they should” if we learned how to overcome the separation that technology brings to our society and learn how to accept those who are different. Notice that often on websites, Facebook, etc., often it’s either agree with me or you are “out”, not accepted, not included. Some people who maintain websites often say just that. It seems the dichotomy is growing rather than people learning how to disagree with a particular position and yet remain friends.

    Furthermore, I’m beginning to think the basis of so much of this racial problem in our society is just that difference that is not accepted; and here I’d say name any case that you mention and somewhere underlying what happened was a fear of hot the “other” might harm me “and here I am alone with no one who cares about me or will back me up”.

    Why must one learn to “fight” to “defend oneself” unless one *really* feels abandoned by others and feels that no one will help should trouble approach one. I wonder what would have happened in all the cases you mention should the individuals involved have felt safe and secure, knowing that someone else would easily and quickly come to their aid should trouble arise – and here I refer to *both* sides in each situation.

    I wonder if learning how to *use* technology but not make it be such in our society that we become alone and abandoned by others and must fight all the “shadows” around us lest we be not only a perceived harm’s way rather than be in *real* harm’s way.

    Perhaps it’s technology that’s got us in some kind of feedback loop where we sit alone at our computers, not knowing if we are communicating with another computer or a real person on the other end, getting no oxytocin “reward”, when what we seek is just the opposite of what technology has to offer – that comfort area where we know others (who cares the color) are with us and will be with us through thick and thin.

    I not sure Junger’s idea about PTSD might be a solution that would help the rest of society, but some of his points set me to thinking. Maybe what’s needed in today’s society is a totally different approach than has been taken in the past; perhaps the problems of today are caused by a totally different problem from those of the past. I’m not saying I’m right. I’m just asking for some tho’t about the topic of each person feeling more accepted by society, more sure of help coming from society if needed. Perhaps today’s problem needs an “out of the box” type of approach in the thinking that will help bring some true solution to the problem. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 16, 2015 @ 6:50 pm

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