Progressives Miss the Point of Baltimore

Sorry, folks: There are a lot of reasons Baltimore is in such dire straits, and making excuses for the riots and looting helps no one.

05.01.15 9:15 AM ET

The Baltimore riots could be the beginning of a new black history in urban America. Too bad all so many people can see is “thugs.”

The supposedly sophisticated twitterati take on what has happened after Freddie Gray’s funeral is to essentially rationalize the riots by explaining that the looting we’ve seen on our TV screens was just collateral damage for institutional racism.

Put aside for the moment that many of the businesses and cars destroyed in the attacks were black-owned. Put aside also that Baltimore’s mayor and police chief are black. Nevertheless, there are indeed structural issues that have combined to create this moment—but they don’t fit the narrative being proposed as higher wisdom.

Police carry an injured officer from the streets near Mondawmin Mall on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Violent street clashes erupted in Baltimore after friends and family gathered for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose death in custody triggered a fresh wave of protests over US police tactics.  Police said at least seven officers were injured -- one of them was unresponsive -- as youths hurled bricks and bottles and destroyed at least one police vehicle in the vicinity of the shopping mall not far from the church where the funeral took place.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

For example, several studies have shown that it’s an op-ed page street myth that mass unemployment is inevitable when factory jobs move away from a city as they did in Baltimore (sources here). No people who had accomplished the Great Migration went to pieces just because a factory moved to the suburbs, or even China.

Three key dynamics since the Civil Rights era 50 years ago created the inner-city misery we are now seeing urgently rise to the foreground today.

First, the Black Power ideology that proliferated in the 1960s and ’70s discouraged black communities from maintaining the old-time mantra that adversity meant that blacks have to try twice as hard. The wise insight was that after centuries in the United States, the persistent double standard was demeaning, and while that made basic sense, it changed black America’s orientation towards individual initiative. That helps explain, for example, why only in the ’60s did it become common for poor blacks to burn their own neighborhoods in protest. Even amidst Jim Crow, black people did not do this.

Second, in the late ’60s, partly in response to the riots of the Long Hot Summers, welfare was transformed from a time-limited program intended for widows to an open-ended program that didn’t care whether recipients ever got jobs. This had the unintended consequence of discouraging marriage, and made it easier for women to raise kids without the father around. This, a story too little told (read it here), decisively impacted the black experience nationwide.

Finally, the War on Drugs created a black market alternative to legal work for poor black men underserved by bad schools. Frankly, The Wire explained this dynamic better than any academic analysis.

Racism is too simplistic an explanation for all of this, as is an idea that “it’s complicated” where what’s really meant is “complicated racism.” Welfare was opened up by liberals who thought they were doing black people a favor, often at the behest of black protesters. The Rockefeller drug laws that ended up penalizing crack over powdered cocaine were supported by black Congress members.

History is messy. But we live in the present and what poor black Baltimoreans see is abuse. The War on Drugs assigns cops to black neighborhoods where, inevitably, encounters tend to be surly and often violent. A vicious cycle starts. What a poor black Baltimorean knows in 2015, what we all know in 2015, is that something needs to change.

Now, to be sure, the rioters’ actions are inherently inarticulate. Certainly some of them are simply opportunists—it’s no accident that most of the looters are young men; pure political protest is often more diverse. The people marching in Selma included women, older people, etc. And of course the riots and looting could also end up compounding many of white Americans’ ugliest stereotypes of black communities and violence. To wonder why, oh why, whites see blacks as violent rings a little hollow at times like these.

But the reflexive liberal rush to moral relativism on the subject misses the mark as well. A certain contingent will not be disabused of the idea that inner-city Baltimore is the product of racism alone, as opposed to a complex cocktail of racism in the past, misapplied benevolence afterwards, and a cyclic process of dissonance now. Their take on all of this is better at assuaging white guilt than telling us where to go from here in a real world.

That is, neither the players nor their fellow-traveling spectators are in a position to see the whole picture. Yet something positive can still come of all this.

Today, regardless of the complexities of how we got here, the main thing that keeps black America feeling alienated in its own land is the police. It’s what animated the Black Panthers. It’s what drove an entire genre of rap, celebrated by intellectuals as poetic prophecy. It’s what a black person brings up if asked why they think racism is important. It’s what has driven the arc of black history since last summer.

In that light, there is a genuine conversation about the cops and black people going on these days in America, and that wouldn’t be true if there hadn’t been riots in Ferguson.

Even if the participants’ and observers’ take on that episode was distorted—the entire “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative was ultimately proven false by the Justice Department—the overall result may have started something positive. To the extent that rioting can make any kind of sense, it would have been more appropriate in the wake of Eric Garner’s or John Crawford’s or Tamir Rice’s murders.

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But history is messy. What we have is the present. And in that present, one simple thing is imperative: America must de-escalate the persistent tensions between cops and young black men. The easiest and most sensible way to do that is to interrupt the foolish War on Drugs. The gradual easing of laws against marijuana sale and purchase are a start. The tenor of black America’s response to cops murdering black men should be a spur to going further.

If one generation of black men grew up without thinking of the cops as the enemy, black America would be a new place making the best of a bad hand, and we would finally start getting past the current tiresome and troubling situation.

Yet with the camera pulled back further, so to speak, I suspect that something constructive could still come of this mess. This is how things happen—history is always messy.