An unarmed young black man is being killed by white police apparently with little justification. This is followed by protests, riots and intense debates on traditional and social media about race relations – for some time. And that, usually, is that.
Outrage – quickly followed by business as usual
In the words of President Barack Obama: “Everybody will feign concern until it goes away, and then we go about our business as usual.” He said the day after the Baltimore riots: “We tend to ignore urban injustices”, except when a drugstore burns or “when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped.”
It quickly was business as usual after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in New York, Walter Scott in South Carolina and now Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
Among the presidential candidates, only Hillary Clinton weighed in after Baltimore, calling deaths of black men at police hands an “unmistakable and undeniable” pattern of tragedy.
In what was her most extensive policy discussion since the beginning of her presidential campaign, Clinton was urging a profound criminal justice reform, including alternatives to “mass incarceration”, police body cameras, better mental health treatment and changes to probation and drug diversion programmes for offenders.
Is Baltimore typical or the exception?
After Ferguson, the discussion has been all about race and the usual north/south, urban/rural racial divide.
Ferguson in rural Missouri is two-thirds black, but the power structure – from city manager to judge to prosecutor to clerks – was white. Just four of 54 police officers were black. The Justice Department found overwhelming evidence of bigotry in policing.
But Baltimore, which is also two-thirds black, doesn’t fit that pattern. Its mayor is black and so is the police commissioner. In fact, many blacks have run the police department in the past and half the officers are African American.
Yet, blacks in Baltimore are five times as likely to be arrested as whites. One third of Maryland prison inmates are from Baltimore – most of them blacks.
The obvious conclusion: The problem isn’t just about race and brutal police, but it’s also about poverty and the social and economic conditions that perpetuate it.
Is Baltimore the worst city in America?
In Baltimore, residents die early as a result of drug-related crime and poverty. In 15 Baltimore neighbourhoods, life expectancy is lower than in North Korea.
Statistically, the city is undoubtedly a poor place. Its average annual per-capita income is $23,333 (20,800 euros) – a bit more than half the national figure. One quarter of Baltimore’s population is living below the poverty line.
But many US cities rank lower. Baltimore doesn’t even make it to the bottom 10 list. Detroit has 42 percent of its people living in poverty, Cleveland has 36 percent, Miami has 32 percent, and Buffalo in upstate New York 31 percent, according to 2012 Census data.
Baltimore also has pockets of extreme wealth, as tiny Maryland – with Baltimore, the state capital Annapolis and Washington, DC suburbs – enjoys the highest concentration of millionaires in America.
Poverty and wealth breed segregation, and the closeness of Baltimore’s tough and affluent neighbourhoods is striking. Of the 50 US metro areas with the largest minority populations, Baltimore ranks 17th on the list of most segregated cities. Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Detroit (the most segregated) rank higher.
No money – no education – no future
Segregation is the result of economic downturns which perpetuate poverty for generations. If a community loses tax dollars, it becomes unable to fund a decent public high school system. As a result, the quality of education suffers, as schools cannot invest in teachers and equipment.
Over time, children in poor neighborhoods are left with the worst schools that barely succeed in teaching the most basic reading and writing skills.
Needless to say that a college education that typically costs $30,000+ per year becomes impossible for many inner city kids – if they ever finish high school and don’t drop out.
A black teenager in West or North Baltimore doesn’t have many choices or parental guidance, as most of them grow up without father. In these tough neighborhoods, lucky are the kids who know their dad.
Left without an education to speak of, residents end up, at best, in low-paying service jobs, as good-paying manufacturing jobs have gradually disappeared from metropolitan Baltimore. In 1970, about a third of the labor force was employed in manufacturing. Today, it’s less than five percent.
The breeding ground for violence
A disillusioned class of black teenagers all too often becomes the breeding ground for drug-related crime. After all, you make more bucks selling crack than selling burgers at McDonald’s.
Rivaling drug gangs and their war over territory then sets the stage for a confrontation with law enforcement, which is under public pressure “to do something” and do something fast.
In the growing concern over drug use in the 1980s and 1990s, political leaders – in Baltimore and in cities all over the US – began throwing people in jail on flimsy suspicions, says author and television producer David Simon, a critic of the city’s “tough-on-crime” policy.
“Too many officers who came up in a culture that taught them not the hard job of policing, but simply how to roam the city, jack everyone up, and call for the wagon”, Simon says.
Most of the arrests of black suspects go unreported, even unnoticed. They only make it into the headlines if the suspect dies at the hands of the police. In search for explanations, Americans look at race relations to find out what is going wrong. They might also want to look beyond them.