I’ll start with a caveat. Not every police shooting of an unarmed black man is just about race. Ferguson, Missouri may have been an exception; an investigation uncovered a history of ugly racial bias in the mostly-white police force – not to mention the entire city power structure – that ruled the mostly black population like a plantation.
But Baltimore? It has a black mayor. Half of the officers are black. There isn’t a history of overt anti-black bias on the part of law enforcement there, as far as we know.
Some big city police departments might have a better record. Baltimore, as we’ve learned, was one of the worst, with a culture that’s led to 100 police brutality lawsuits since 2011. But Baltimore isn’t a complete outlier either.
Beyond the dysfunctional practices of police departments and vigilante cops, there are bedrock problems that exist in Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, (name your city) that put young black men, whether or not they’re doing anything wrong, in the crosshairs. Those problems are extreme poverty, drug-ridden neighborhoods and a war on drugs which hasn’t put a dent in the drug problem in 40 years. Add in a bias that black men commit most crimes and therefore are probably guilty of something, and you’ve got a deadly mixture just itching to explode
Rioting seems irrational, doesn’t it? Why would someone think something good would come from looting and destruction and violence?
Well, here’s the short answer. No matter what they do, nothing changes. Not by voting, not by peaceful protests, not by demanding the appointment of more black officers. Not by electing a black president. They’re expressing rage and frustration at a system where young blacks are grabbing for crumbs under the table after the feast has been consumed. And then yelled at and called thieves for grabbing the crumbs. In many of these neighborhoods you’re a “success” if you reach age 25 without dying or being sent to prison.
In 1978, the eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson published The Declining Significance of Race, in which he argued that class had supplanted race as the primary reason for the continued subordination of underprivileged blacks. Yet even Wilson admitted that the toxic impact of prejudice could not be completely ignored. He began his 2009 book More Than Just Race by writing:
“I am an internationally known Harvard professor, yet a number of unforgettable experiences remind me that, as a black male in America looking considerably younger than my age, I am also feared. For example, several times over the years I have stepped into the elevator of my condominium dressed in casual clothes and could immediately tell from the body language of the other residents in the elevator that I made them feel uncomfortable. Were they thinking, ‘What is this black man doing in this expensive condominium? Are we in danger?’ I once sarcastically said to a nervous elderly couple who hesitated to exit the elevator because we were all getting off in the same floor, ‘Not to worry, I am a Harvard professor and I have lived in this building for nine years.” When I am dressed casually, I am always a little relieved to step into an empty elevator, but I am not apprehensive if I’m wearing a tie.'”
When you’ve exhausted every avenue for change, you resort to rage. The next step, psychologically speaking, would be catatonic depression. In a sense, rioting is about as hopeful a reaction as you’ll find.
If you look at it that way, rioting, though unfortunate and illegal, makes sense. And that’s why we can expect it to happen again. We just don’t know where. Because these conditions have not changed for decades.
Last week, a New York Times / CBS poll found “profound” racial divisions in views of how the police use deadly force. Blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to say police in most communities are more apt to use deadly force against a black person — 79 percent of blacks compared with 37 percent of whites. Are we living in the same country?
According to one report:>
Race prejudice … now threatens to affect our future. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities … Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing … have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of blacks from the benefits of economic progress …The black ghettos [are] where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce failure. Crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare, and bitterness and resentment against society in general and white society in particular are the result … [There is] a widespread belief among blacks in the existence of police brutality and in a “double standard” of justice and protection—one for blacks and one for whites.
How true. Except the report wasn’t written in 2015. It is a quote from the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots. (Okay, I changed the word “negro” to “black.”). It concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” Move we did.
We can expect another Baltimore because we as a nation are more eager to speak up in defense of property than to speak up in defense of another brutalized black man. We can expect another Baltimore because we don’t want to see what black people are so angry about and can’t see that the systems in place for decades – economic, drug enforcement, legislative – have made setting fire to cars and singing civil rights hymns the logical outcome.