When black lives are devalued for years by those in power, what recourse is there? When communities are neglected and ignored for decades, who would not be consumed by frustration and anger? When peaceful protestors are met by Police in SWAT gear armed with military weapons driving military vehicles, who is actually inciting violence?
There are two things to keep in mind talking about the situation in Baltimore. These issues don’t exist in a vacuum. There is a historical context that holds the key to understanding what took place. There is no easy answer. There is no tidy resolution. In order to make any demonstrable change possible, we need to have conversations about race, class, and the use of force by Police. These long and frustrating conversations are emotionally charged and deeply personal, but that is no excuse to not have them.
What compounds the problem are the distractions thrown in our faces in the wake of a Ferguson or a Baltimore. The way the world found out about Baltimore added to the laundry list of issues. Mainstream media refuses to report the facts in anything resembling a fair way. Without exception, white criminals are portrayed more positively than black victims. Yearbook photos are used to show the world who shot up an elementary school, but photos of black victims are chosen to show them as threatening as possible. White murderers are “mentally unstable,” while black victims’ names are dragged through the mud within 24 hours. Freddie Gray’s criminal record doesn’t matter when we’re talking about him being savagely beaten and denied medical care. Being a suspect or a criminal or a witness does not remove someone’s right as a human being to live.
Black rioters are condemned for destroying their own communities, but we forget that white riots have historically targeted black communities. Recently, white riots are in response to sports results or a pumpkin festival while black riots are in response to an epidemic of unjust killings. White rioters are “rowdy,” while black rioters are “thugs.”
Adding yet another layer to the problem is the inevitable “black on black” crime conversation. Black on black crime is bullshit. No other race is discussed this way because there are no “white on white” or “Latino on Latino” conversations. People commit crimes against the people in their communities and American cities are largely racially segregated making crime within a race the norm. Plus, there is a long, painful history of murder, rape, and assault by whites (especially police) on blacks. Does this mean that all police are bad? No, but are there departments across the country that need to drastically change the way they protect and serve?
Instead of talking about black on black crime, we should be talking about the dilapidated infrastructure, school closings, and generational poverty in Baltimore. These were problems long before Freddie Gray. People need to realize that there are some circumstances over which the individuals affected have no control. Hard work, determination, good decision making – these are all good American values, but do not pretend a young boy in Baltimore has control over his school shutting down or being born in a neglected neighborhood. These are just two of the variables that disproportionately affect black Americans. The Horatio Alger myth that hard work is the only prerequisite for success in America is complete nonsense. People do not pull themselves up by their bootstraps entirely on their own, and they certainly do not do so when assumptions are made about them at every imaginable level of society. Unless we want to claim blacks are lazy, stupid, and otherwise inferior, we must recognize the disproportionately low access to opportunity in communities of color across the country.
It once took the sight of fire hoses being turned on teenagers and dogs tearing into unarmed protestors to awaken the morality of the masses. What will it take now to jumpstart meaningful change in the way our communities are supported, our streets are policed, and our right to protest protected?
These issues need to be addressed by individuals, communities, and our nation. Any hope of change starts with talking openly and honestly with each other, however uncomfortable it may be. It will take time and energy. It will take patience and respect. So yes, these conversations are hard and unpleasant, but since when has something being hard truly stopped us? We cannot abandon faith in our better natures and let our country burn. If we are a true nation of equals, then it is time to make it so.