At the White House on Monday, the nation’s first black president welcomed the nation’s first black woman to serve as attorney general. Forty miles away, looting and fires broke out in Baltimore amid protests over the death of a black man whose neck was broken while he was in police custody.
The gulf between the two events showed the paradox of America today. Black Americans have reached the highest levels of power, and yet many are still trapped amid poverty and violence in the nation’s cities. For them, the American Dream has been both realized and deferred.
The images of flames, looters and vandals filled TV screens Monday and stole attention from what President Obama called the “slow rolling crisis” of police-community relations that triggered the fast moving one Monday. There were hundreds of arrests and vehicle fires and more than a dozen structure fires. Fifteen police officers were hurt, six of them seriously. Schools were closed Tuesday. National Guard troops patrolled the streets.
What erupted in Baltimore was fed by frustration and anger over incidents of unarmed black suspects being killed by police after encounters over minor infractions. The man killed in Baltimore, Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested for running from police. Others elsewhere have died after being confronted for jaywalking, selling loose cigarettes or having a missing tail light.
Poverty fuels protests
The conflicts with police are a symptom of a deeper problem. The police are given the hard and dangerous work of maintaining order in communities undermined by joblessness, drugs and crime.
It’s clear that many police departments need to improve their relations with poor communities and their tactics in dealing with those who violate the law, especially in cases of minor offenses. But the broader message out of Baltimore is about poverty and inequality. The nation cannot continue to pretend that a rising stock market or tech inventions or tax cuts or more police or lectures about personal responsibility or even the election of a black president will solve the problem of an underclass locked out of opportunity.
The nation’s poor were hit hardest by the last recession, and the recovery has been a mirage. The corrosive effects of poverty weaken their families, failing schools leave them uneducated and high levels of arrests and incarceration – often for petty drug crimes – foreclose the possibility of finding a decent job. In the Sandtown-Winchester section of Baltimore where Freddie Gray grew up, half the population between 18 and 24 is not employed, one third of the residential properties are vacant or abandoned and half the children going to high school are chronically absent.
In today’s polarized politics, conservatives dismiss the nation’s earlier anti-poverty campaigns as failures and criticize the programs that help the poor as handouts. Their solution is to get government out of the way and allow the dynamism of America’s capitalist system to uplift the poor who are willing to work. But the economy is not getting better for the poor. Instead, the gap is widening between the very wealthy and the rest. It is time for a national jobs program focused on low-income areas.
The urban poor are not seeking charity. What they want are schools that educate their children and jobs that pay enough to support a home and a family. That is something the American economy should be able to provide. That is the American Dream.
Tough policing that leads to protests and riot gear won’t end the tension in America’s poor communities. Jobs will.
Creating those jobs should be the priority of this Congress and the presidential candidates of both parties.