The events of this past week put Baltimore center stage in the media spotlight.
The question is whether that illumination can bring scrutiny and insight into similar vulnerabilities and potentially volatile conditions confronting urban cities across this nation. It should and it must if America is finally going to begin to address the “crisis” which it has chosen to ignore for decades.
In a blog that we posted in late March, we stated that, “…not only has America not won the war on urban poverty. It has essentially abandoned it. It has declared victory and turned its attention elsewhere. The term ‘urban crisis’ has disappeared from our vocabulary.”
This neglect can go on no longer if America is to remain America and the American dream is to survive.
John Angelos, Executive Vice President of the Baltimore Orioles and son of the Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos, made the most telling and poignant comments that we have heard in this regard. In a PBS interview with Gwen Ifill, he observed, “In order for the United States to continue to hold itself out as the greatest country in the world, in order for it to hold itself out as a country that stands for democracy, equal opportunity and civil and human rights, it needs to provide equal opportunity for all people.”
In remarks shortly after the riots in Baltimore, new U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch cautioned, “…I’d ask that we remember that Baltimore is more than just a symbol. Baltimore is a city; it is a great city, it is a beautiful city; it is one of our cities. Like so many cities, Baltimore is struggling to balance great expectations with limited resources.”
We agree with Attorney General Lynch, that Baltimore is more than a symbol. It is a warning sign and a leading indicator of issues and problems to come in other urban areas if they continue to be ignored or addressed incompletely.
Attorney General Lynch also called for “… developing a respectful conversation within the Baltimore community and across the nation about the way our law enforcement officers interact with the residents they are charged to serve and protect.” On this point, we disagree with the Attorney General.
What is needed is more than a conversation with a narrow focus on the manner in which law enforcement behaves within minority communities. What is needed is a thorough examination, identification and elimination of the root causes of the ghetto-like conditions in so many of our major cities.
This is especially true because, as Donna F. Edwards, Maryland state congressperson, wrote in a column following the riots, in black communities “the conversation” has a specific meaning. It is a discussion that black mothers have with their teenage and young adult sons about how to interact with police officers in order to minimize the chance of being the object of violence.
As Americans interested in equity and justice we have to obviate the need for “the conversation”. This can only be accomplished through honest debate and dialogue and the development of a comprehensive solution to the impoverishment of psychological and socioeconomic factors that entangle our inner city neighborhoods.
There are differing perspectives on the sources of that impoverishment. The New York Times ran a sort of point/counter-point on its op-ed page in the May 1, 2015 edition of the paper in pieces by David Brooks, a regular contributor, and N.D.B. Connolly, an assistant professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.
In his piece titled, “The Nature of Poverty”, Brooks opined: “The real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.”
In stark contrast, Connolly, in his piece titled “Black Culture Is Not the Problem”, attributes the problem to racism. He asserts: “By calling a ‘nationwide state of emergency’ on the problem of segregation, by devising a fairer tax structure, by investing in public space, community policing, tenant’s rights, jobs programs, our leaders can find a way forward.”
Who is right — Brooks or Connolly? We think neither and both.
Brooks correctly cites the substantial public and private investments and expenditures that have been made in Baltimore over the past 30 years. He does not discuss, however, the negative impact of the hollowing out of neighborhoods and communities there due to the flight of the black middle class and the working poor to the suburbs in that city and in other urban areas across the country.
Connolly correctly points out the nature of ongoing racism and segregation in Baltimore. But, he does not discuss the role and effect of the family, parents and peer groups in destabilizing communities.
They are looking at the problem from different angles. There are elements of truth in both of their analyses but neither is holistic enough to address what is an extremely complex and multifaceted situation.
The poor areas in our nation’s cities are not just food deserts. They are deserts of opportunity inequality. They must be converted to islands for opportunity equality and launching pads for social mobility to reverse this condition. This demands a systemic and coordinated intervention.
A perfect place to begin this conversion and intervention is by focusing the rebuilding and rejuvenation on the youth in these neighborhoods. This will be a long term process.
As we noted in our most recent blog, “Opportunity Inequality: The Plight of America’s Poor Kids,” it is probably too late to impact the lives of many of those kids who have been caught in the “opportunity gap” over the past 20 to 30 years. It is not too late, however, to put a complete set of measures in place to help this and future generations of poor kids in our urban cities.
Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam proposes a number of such measures in the areas of family structure; child development and parenting; schools and communities in his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. We detail others in a series of blog posts that we wrote last summer.
In 1977, singer songwriter Randy Newman wrote a song titled Baltimore. The chorus of that song goes:
Man, it’s hard just to live
Man, it’s hard just to live
It may have been hard to live in Baltimore during those difficult and recessionary times. We don’t know if it is harder for those in the underclass and grinding poverty living there today. We do know that it is not easy.
We also know that if the events in Baltimore serve as a catalyst and that positive change is initiated in response to them that Baltimore will be “more than just a symbol”. It will be a sign to those in poor neighborhoods in cities across this country that the American dream is still alive and the province of all.