“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode”-Langston Hughes
Over the past two weeks, Baltimore, a city I have returned to after many travels internationally time and again has become world news. I was born in Baltimore in 1986, in Franklin Square Hospital. I went to high school in Howard County, college at Towson, and grad school in Charles Village. I have lived a few other places in the United States and abroad. I always have come back to Charm City. Except for an aunt in Philly and an uncle in Virginia, my whole family is from here. We bleed purple in the winter and orange in the summer, drink Boh, and hate the Steelers. One of my uncles splits his time between working in a factory and crabbing professionally. The only thing I don’t have going for me is that I never played lacrosse.
Baltimore and Maryland more generally, are my home. I love this place, so it has been painful and heart-wrenching to watch my city tear itself apart. I have always felt Baltimore deserves more recognition than it gets, especially from the uppity members of that metropolis to the South down the BW Parkway.
I now live in Fell’s Point, a relatively safe and affluent area of Baltimore city. Most of my friends live in Canton, Fed Hill-even more prosperous and gentrified area of the city. A few hipster friends live in Hampden, or Remington, or Mt. Vernon. None of those areas are especially dangerous. In college I dated a girl who lived in studio in Charles Village, and despite Hopkin’s campus, my grandmother always worried about me being so close the other side of the JFX and Druid Hill (West Baltimore.) On the second night of the riots I went to stay in the county with my family. I tell myself this is for their peace of mind. I am not so sure.
For a white, middle class, educated man it is always difficult to broach the subject of race. This is even truer when it isn’t clear where the line demarcating the subject of race and class is blurring and ill defined. Especially with my black friends and colleagues conversations have always been held tentatively, with many reservations, and with strongly held convictions withheld lest friendships broken. I know many white men, informed and compassionate, who pull punches in debates about race. I can never know what it is like to be black in America. I can read novelist like Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison, but like any human being I am trapped within my own consciousness. I am a prisoner of my own experience. What I do know very well, however, is the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland.
A lot has been made of the “two Baltimores” narrative. It was eloquently discussed here and elsewhere. This mirrors a much discussed” two Americas” meme commonly bantered about in our political culture. I do think however, that this black vs. white dichotomy is too simplistic. At least, for Baltimore it is. As outsiders across the country try to understand Baltimore they need to keep several things in mind. Baltimore is first and foremost a working class city. This is what can be called the “third Baltimore.” These are neighborhoods like Curtis Bay, Rosedale, O’Donnell Heights and Highland Town. These are neighborhoods that have, even while, similar neighborhoods like Hampden have gentrified and manufacturing declined, clung to their rough and tumble, working class identities. These neighborhoods are also pretty racial mixed between white, black and now Latino residents.
Baltimore has always been a city of neighborhoods defined by identity. Baltimore has also- all of its neighborhoods white, black, mixed- been a place that has taken a great deal of pride in its defiance of authority. Baltimoreans of all stripes, in the city and in the county, have grown increasingly resentful of being viewed as a speed bump between DC and Philadelphia over the past forty years. This is the city that saved America in 1814 after all. This sense of neglect for the white working or middle class often takes the form of lamenting the loss of the Colts in 1984 among my father’s generation, or arguing with friends in DC or Manhattan about the relative merits of “authenticity” in their respective cities. Among the impoverished black underclass of west Baltimore this sense of being forgotten by a larger America takes a much more acute and hopeless form. For these people it’s not about sports or nebulous conversations about a hipster city’s “authenticity.” This neglect has real and dire consequences. Many of them have been on display for us nightly on CNN.
I don’t know if Baltimore is the tipping point. My home city has been pivotal many times before in American history. After Trayvon Martin many thought Ferguson was the tipping point, after Ferguson Staten Island, after Staten Island a young boy named Tamir Rice was shot and killed and Cleveland by police. Then after Freddie Grey died in police custody Baltimore, Maryland, the city of Frederick Douglas was engulfed in flames. This isn’t the first time. In 1861, anti-war democrats and confederate sympathizers attacked Union troops along Pratt Street. The infamous Pratt Street Riot took place on a main thoroughfare which is now lined with National Guard troops. Then, as many well know, in 1968 Baltimore was overcome with chaos and flames for from April 5th through April 9th following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. Baltimore has always sat at the nexus of North and South, rich and poor, black and white, the powerful and the powerless.
To put things in historical perspective the infamous riots of ‘68 had a lot to do with placing Baltimore in its current dire situation. Wealth and whiteness fled the city. A Jewish professional class moved from Liberty Heights to Pikesville, working class Polish and Irish Catholics moved to the suburbs, and the wealthy turned farmland in Howard county into affluent suburbs far from the problems of urban Baltimore. In the ensuing forty years the centrifugal forces of global economics devastated a lot of cities like Baltimore. The massive steel mill at Sparrows Point closed; shipping took a hit, suburban schools got better while inner city schools got worse. Then crack hit. The rest of the story should be clear to anyone who’s followed American cultural history in the past 30 years.
Much of the response of the riots has taken the form of moralizing and outright condemnation. While I find the destruction of my city tragic and I agree that violence is always ultimately self-defeating we cannot patronizingly dismiss the despair that too many young, black, and impoverished Americans feel. To do so is to permit, no promote, a dismissive fatalism which will only result in riots in another 10 years and another generation lost.
There will be many who say, that acknowledgement of the problem is all well and good, but there need to be social changes that take place in the black community to make any policy changes effective. That may well be true, but that condescending argument cannot be made by educated white men ensconced in the safety of the suburbs. Those voices need to arise from within the black community itself for that argument to be taken with any sort of validity. The truth is that the problems of race and class are so nuanced and variegated in 21st century America that only a combination of political, social, and cultural will can start to alleviate them. We can no longer allow under preforming public schools to warehouse students until such a time as they can be sent away to jail. We can no longer have militarized police forces patrolling American neighborhoods aggressively in order to hide the misery and violence from the middle and upper class. There may be cultural changes that need to occur. There is always an element of personal choice in the lives of any individual, black or white.
Yet, there are real and concrete policy changes we can make as a city, state, and nation to begin addressing these challenges. To outline this as succinctly as possible, I believe we need to start taking aim at a variety of social and criminal justice policies that disproportionately affect poor black communities. We need to stop funding public schools with property taxes. This only ensures the wealthiest districts in the suburbs excel while city schools deteriorate. Teachers need to be paid more, especially teachers who choose to teach in inner city or rural schools. We need to end the war on drugs and reform the criminal justice system. No one should have the rest of their lives destroyed for a youthful nonviolent possession charge. It’s a national shame that land of the free incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation on the planet. We also need to stop the slow decay of probable cause in American policing. Protection against unreasonable search and seizure is a constitutional right of all American citizens. No one should have to fear arrest just because they are black and young and coming of the Gilmor Homes, regardless of their previous criminal record. Most importantly, we need to remove the civilian police forces from the war footing they have been on since September 11th. Baltimore is not Baghdad; it should not be treated as such.
You cannot have communities that essentially constitute third world America- with families devastated by faceless economic forces, drugs, crime, and institutional neglect- and not expect the people who live and breathe that life to not have simmering resentment toward the powers that been. As our own president recently said:
“In communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men; communities where there’s no investment, and manufacturing has been stripped away; and drugs have flooded the community, and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks — in those environments, if we think that we’re just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without as a nation and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we’re not going to solve this problem.”
The truth is there are people, mostly black and brown but not universally, that this great American experiment has left behind. People whose opportunities have been squandered, dreams differed, and the pursuit of happiness stifled. These people are justifiably angry. It is heart breaking to watch Baltimore burn. It is also heart breaking to know there are members of this city’s community, that don’t expect to very live long, and if they do they don’t expect to stay free very long.Where was CNN when they closed Sparrows Point? Where was Fox when the boarded up blocks of row homes? Where was MSNBC when there were 300 murders a year in this city? Where was ESPN when the Colts left? Baltimore isn’t a speed bump between DC and NYC. Where have you been America? Safely in DC watching “the Wire.”
This guy says in even better here.
I don’t know the answers to the problems of race or class in my city or in the United States, generally. We face a crisis of leadership so monumental, a lack of faith in our institutions so deep, and an utter void of community solidarity that it seems to overwhelm the collective moral authority that comes with our best democratic traditions. I do know, however, Baltimore- like Detroit, or Cleveland, or Ferguson, is worth saving. Any Baltimorean who has spent time visiting professional acquaintances or friends in DC has spent a fair amount of time defending their city. I am not here to engage in such a trite debate. Every city in America is worth saving. The yawning disparity that exists between West Baltimore and Downtown also separates Anacostia and Capitol Hill in DC, or the Southside of Chicago from Highland Park. You can think of any American city and plug in two neighborhoods that might as well be as different as Earth and Mars.
Many will remember the BELIEVE campaign that started in the mid-2000s. The city placed black and white “believe” posters all around the city. The message was clear and concise. That despite, the abject despair and poverty portrayed so vividly in shows like “The Wire” and “Homicide,” there was hope. Today, a day after the 2015 Freddie Grey riots, things appear hopeless. We have a black president, black attorney general, yet the city of Frederick Douglas is in flames over the same issues that once sent the states at war with each other. Will we ever get passed the legacy of slavery and reconstruction? Will the gap between the experiences of white and black people always be so acute that Martin’s dream always be just that- a dream? For my part I am heartbroken that my city by the bay lies in flames. My hope in both my own civic identity and in the American experiment is shaken. But, I still believe. I still believe in my Charm City. I still believe in the United States of America. And I hope that we can as, Lincoln implored of us in his first inaugural, strive to achieve the “better angles of our nature.”