(TakePart) The unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray—who died of a severed spine while in police custody—seemed to have caught elected officials, the public, and the media off guard. And those who are far removed from the problems, the challenges, and the indignities facing poor and disenfranchised communities in that city shake their heads in disbelief and wonder why this is all happening.
Surely, the distant observer or armchair pundit has questions. Why are they protesting? Why are they destroying their own neighborhoods? Why did they loot the CVS? Why didn’t the suspect simply comply with the police and avoid causing his own death?
These questions reflect the very real disconnect between the haves and the have nots in the land of the free, and the gaping chasm on matters of race. It’s impossible to comprehend what’s happening here and now—or know the issues we have yet to face—without having an intimate awareness of black America’s history.
From the urban rebellions of the 1960s, to the L.A. riots of 1992, to Ferguson, Baltimore is part of a recurring theme. Acts of police brutality precipitate public outrage and rioting, but only after years of festering wounds caused by racism, economic inequality, and violence against communities of color.
Recent events provide lessons on the intractability of poverty and racism in America, should we choose to heed the warnings and change course.
America’s “race problem” is traced back to slavery, which was not only a social hierarchy and system of economic exploitation but an oppressive police state governed by violence. Following the Civil War, reconstruction represented hope for political and economic empowerment of the emancipated slaves. Yet, black power was thwarted through voter disenfranchisement and a regime of domestic terror, in which Dixiecrats, the Ku Klux Klan, the lynch mob, and law enforcement suppressed African American aspirations.
The civil rights movement was a time of great transformation and social unrest, as the legal dismantling of Jim Crow was met with white segregationist backlash and police and vigilante violence against civil rights workers. As black communities continued to face the stinging pain of police brutality, groups such as the Black Panther Party were formed. While the urban rebellions of the 1960s in cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Newark were often precipitated by acts of police violence—typically the fatal shooting or beating of a black man by law enforcement—the frustrations of the black community boiled over as a consequence of years of racial discrimination, segregation, and frustration over the lack of economic opportunity.
“The police are not merely a ‘spark’ factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes,” concluded the 1968 Kerner Commission report on civil disturbances. “The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection—one for Negroes and one for whites,” the report added.
Meanwhile, as the racial and economic justice reforms of the Johnson administration precipitated white flight from the Democratic Party, Republicans were able to capitalize on the resentment of disaffected white Southerners over civil rights. Through a Southern strategy of race-card politics, a fear of black criminality, and a resentment over perceived government handouts to racial minorities, the GOP captured the former Confederacy.
With the escalation of the drug war in the 1980s and 1990s came the increased criminalization of people of color as mass incarceration separated families and destroyed urban communities. As jobs left American cities and relocated overseas, white rural prisons—occupied by black and brown bodies—became the new company town. The militarization of local law enforcement, expanded under the wars on drugs and terror, reinforced the notion that the police were an occupying force in black and brown neighborhoods.
During the 1990s, the U.S. experienced an epidemic of police brutality, including the severe police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991. The 1992 acquittal of the officers who beat King led to riots in South Central L.A., resulting in 55 dead, over 1,000 injured, and more than $800 million in property damage.
Occupying armies here at home—employing heavy-handed policies, stop-and-frisk and racial profiling, heavy police monitoring, and criminalization of everyday life through “broken windows” policing—have become a major source of harassment, anxiety, injury, and death for young black men.
Meanwhile, the nation is experiencing widening economic inequality and a clamping down on the poor. However, the racial wealth gap is increasing as well. As a result of the Great Recession, including predatory loans that targeted people of color, blacks and Latinos have sustained a staggering loss of wealth and have fallen even further behind whites. Black unemployment is consistently double that of whites.
Solutions to these myriad problems will not come easy, and yet, the truth stares us down once again and demands immediate action.
The legal profession must become browner and blacker and challenge the implicit racial bias pervading the justice system.
American policing requires a complete cultural overhaul, including community participation and oversight, and a more diverse force reflecting the neighborhoods they control. Local law enforcement must divest itself of military surplus hardware and a number of its officers.
Educational segregation must end, and inner-city schools must enjoy the same resources and quality as suburban schools.
And we should end the drug war now. The U.S. should no longer depend on prisons as a profit center and a primary form of social control. Funds should be diverted to infrastructure and economic development. Jobs and ballots should be more accessible than guns, and a living wage guaranteed. Policies must support working families rather than break them apart.
If society fails to address the systemic issues of racism, violence, and economic exploitation, more Baltimores will follow.