May 3, 2015
By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
A protester with a police vest faces members of the Baltimore Police Department, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Rioters plunged part of Baltimore, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
The racial and economic divide is as old as our history – a history in which inequality was usually set in law – yet we always seem startled by the sight of cities erupting into a flaming hot mess before our dismay dissolves with the next distraction.
We willfully ignore the lessons of even recent history, and you don’t even have to go back as far as the red-lining disgrace of New Deal housing policy or poll taxes or Jim Crow. Consider: What has changed since the Kerner Report, commissioned by LBJ after 150 American cities burned over four summers in the 1960s?
What has changed since its face-slapping verdict that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal,” and that “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto – white institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
A peek into Freddie Gray’s neighborhood provides the answer: Very little has changed, other than our uncanny ability to rationalize this separation.
So now it’s up to those two societies, again, to decide whether it is willing to allow this to fester. Because despite the honest efforts of some, too many from one side are content with the status quo, as long as the trouble doesn’t spill into the nice neighborhoods; and too many from another side have come to conclude that violent rage is the last remaining expression of the unheard.
The brief tour everyone took through West Baltimore this past week offers a jarring reminder of societal priorities. In Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Gray lived before his neck somehow snapped after he was taken into police custody, one-third the population over 25 doesn’t have a high school diploma. More than half the population between 16 and 64 is not working. One-third of the residences are abandoned. Even cases of lead paint poisoning, which damaged the brain of every kid in Gray’s childhood home, is four times higher than the city average.
Every city has places like this, where kids are surrounded by despair and degradation of every kind, and convinced by the stark evidence of their surroundings that there is no hope for them. And they’d be right: It’s much easier to keep them confined in these small and perverted spaces through oppressive policing, rather than pay attention to the systemic problems of education, employment, housing, drugs, and of gangs replacing families.
The result is a generation of atavistic kids who went to the brickbats on Monday afternoon, kids so brutalized by life that they had nothing but empty spaces in their chests intended for their souls.
In some cases, the cops are also victims, in a perverse way: They’re the new symbols of an old urban failure, shielding the politicians who validate their OT but do little to improve the Sandtowns or Fergusons — community servants mutated into an occupying militia, authorized to brutalize black men with impunity.
Now six of them face criminal charges, one for second-degree murder – perhaps an important step toward holding police accountable for their misconduct.
But as we march in protest in dozens of cities, we seem destined to become desensitized by images of men getting their necks broken, getting choked to death, getting shot eight times in the back. The president had it right: More than likely, we will “feign concern until it goes away and then we go about our business as usual.”
To our everlasting shame. American fatalism, on a loop.