So today, we’re going to find out how Freddie Gray died. Obviously, the first thing we wonder here is whether they’re going to tell us the truth. If they kicked him 67 times while he was down on the floor of that van and severed his spine that way, are they going to tell us that? The second thing to wonder is what will happen if they do tell the truth and the truth is exculpatory of the cops. What percentage of people will believe it? He was in a van for about 20 minutes with six cops. No witnesses (except the guy in the van who allegedly says Gray was trying to injure himself but also admits he didn't really see). Came out disfigured and dead. Unless the reality is equal to the lurid scenario that has no doubt been conjured in the minds of black Baltimoreans, not many of them will believe a word of it.
And another thing they won’t believe, even if we are told the full truth and it’s ugly—is that anything will change. Because we all know there is little chance that anything will.
We have witnessed on matters of race a great political and cultural role-reversal in the last 50 years. Half a century ago, we had a culture that couldn’t deal at all with race, but a political system that was willing to. Now it’s the precise opposite.
Take, say, Hairspray. Yes, Hairspray; stay with me here. This was a great movie about Baltimore in the early 1960s, and everyone loves it (I refer to the original, although pretty much everyone loved the later musical, too), and everyone loves John Waters. But Waters peddled a big lie to us.
The Corny Collins teen-dance TV show depicted in the film was based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show, which ran in Baltimore from 1957 to 1964. In Waters’s Hollywood telling, The Corny Collins Show integrated through force of will of the liberal-minded and good-hearted kids of Charm City. In real life, of course, no such thing happened.
The Buddy Deane Show set aside something like one day every couple of weeks for the black kids to show up and dance on air. But—segregated dancing only. Then, once, some of the black kids, helped by their allies among the whites, infiltrated a white kids’ day, and the shocked citizenry of Baltimore was exposed to the sight of white and black kids dancing, if not together, at least on the same stage. Pressure from some quarters—the city’s white liberals, the NAACP—increased on the show to integrate on a permanent basis. But rather than subject Baltimore to that sight, the station from which the show originated, WJZ, cancelled it.
The culture wasn’t able to handle integration then, or black claims for equality. Ed Sullivan sometimes dared to touch the hands of black performers; CBS affiliates down South would be flooded with irate calls.
But here’s the thing—the political system in those days could and did respond to those claims. It was hard, of course, and messy and sometimes violent. But it happened. People have been arguing a lot about riots in the last few days. I’m not endorsing riots. But here’s an uncomfortable truth: As a tactic, riots worked in those days. President Johnson condemned the Watts riots of August 1965. But six weeks later, he issued his affirmative action executive order. There was perhaps no direct cause and effect, but the fact is that the political system beheld black frustration and rage and authored some kind of ameliorative response to them.
The causation was more direct, though, in 1968, when the riots in Washington, D.C., definitely played a part in Congress passing that year’s Fair Housing Act. Yes, those riots also gave us backlash and Frank Rizzo and a battalion of real-life Archie Bunkers.
Today, we have a culture in which integration and diversity are not merely celebrated but, one might go so far as to say, forced on us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it. For a while there, my little daughter’s favorite Disney princess was Tiana, the African-American one, from New Orleans. Our culture still depicts stereotypes and always will, but more often it revels in trying to oppose those old stereotypes, and this has done us all much good.
But today, the political system plays the role that culture played when I was a boy. It’s not that there aren’t programs. There are. Many of course were begun in the 1960s, but some are of more recent vintage. So it’s not fair to say the political system does nothing.
It is however fair to say that there is utterly no taste today in our political culture for large-scale redresses like those of the 1960s. As we all know it’s very much the opposite. The Supreme Court just itches to strike down affirmative action. This is the same Court that is essentially resegregating our public schools. With respect to the aforementioned Fair Housing Act, Pro Publica reported in 2012 on the laxity of enforcement under every president since 1968—current incumbent, it must be said, included. There is much more. And today, there is more: Now, one of our two parties is doing everything it feels it can get away with to stop black people from even voting.
Something in us makes us refuse to believe that Freddie Gray and all the others died for nothing. And maybe he didn’t. The culture might respond. Some artist I’ve never heard of might make a great hip-hop song about him, and in that case at least his name will live on. But I would advise you, alas, not to sit around waiting on the political system, and I think we all know the reason why.