All the white indignation in the world will not solve any of the systemic problems of our minority neighborhoods. We have known that there have been people, our neighbors, who, for whatever reasons, have opted out or have been left out of America’s economic prosperity and who have been left isolated on cultural-economic islands that we became frightened to build bridges to or visit. I don’t care who is at fault. There is plenty of fault to go around.
Americans of African Descent have been shunned and the more they were shunned the more cut off they became from the culture as a whole. Their own pride and the defenses they erected to show that they did not care and that perhaps they did not want anything to do with white people either seemed to effectively burn any bridges or stop people from building bridges altogether.
There have been programs to lift people in pockets of stubborn poverty up and out. Someone always puts shame into these programs, accuses poor folk of taking something for nothing (when it seems as if that must have been the whole idea) before the programs can do their work and then either abandons the programs or turns them into just another burden.
I was around for the last bout of “riots” in the sixties which were mostly concerned with securing basic civil rights. Our government did throw some money at these problems at that time. I worked for a program that helped people who left school, or graduated but still lacked the basic skills they needed to get along in areas like reading, writing and math. A bit of money was wasted before these programs got up to speed, got rid of the greedy few trying to rip off the government, and started making true inroads into preparing adults for college. Students in these programs were saddled with big loans in the early years because they would be given school loans and they would fail their courses and drop out again, being still improperly prepared for higher education but now, also, in debt. Eventually the programs improved and were able to help almost every student earn a college degree.
There were still factory jobs in those days and Americans of African Descent had a tough time getting hired at factories (men more than women) because employees worried about their work ethic, sometimes with justification, sometimes not. No sooner did people from poor neighborhoods begin to get jobs in factories than all of the factories left America. At the same time Washington decided to link welfare to work (sometimes educational or training programs were also acceptable). With good paying jobs disappearing poor people were once more put between that proverbial rock and a hard place.
Everyone in America wants success – everyone wants to get rich. Our changing economy and attitudes towards the poor left Americans of African Descent with few choices – music (entertainment), sports, or drugs. I taught young people who would refuse to read at all unless the material was about rap or basketball. I was not so married to western culture and tradition that I refused to pick up some magazines at the bookstore which centered around rap and basketball. Such materials still functioned to raise reading levels, which was my main goal. Then we could read some Shakespeare.
But, of course, selling drugs is a criminal act. Flashing around town with a big car and diamonds in your teeth did not sit well with the establishment. They declared a “War on Drugs” and so we began the years of locking up black men and women, breaking up families (isn’t this the same thing that happened to black families in slavery and yet we wonder why intact black families are sometimes rare) pitting cops (policemen) against segregated neighborhoods, creating an impetus for the formation of gangs to fight the law and to protect the turf. Call something a war and it becomes a war. Language matters.
That puts us right where we are today in almost any American city with a community at war with law enforcement to defend the criminal activities some of the poor see as the only “opportunity” they are left with to achieve the American Dream. The police form that blue wall to protect themselves, but that same blue wall is now a wall bad policemen can hide behind.
And so we ask how does a black teen get killed making a convenient store run for Skittles and iced tea? How does a black man, admittedly a large black man, end up dead for selling a few “loosies”? Why is running away from policemen when they have never been your friends something that leads to your being shot in the back? How does a healthy young man get taken into police custody for no discernible reason and end up dead with a broken spine?
And why won’t the police every say they are sorry, admit they were wrong, make amends, at least explain what they are afraid of that is making them gun down innocents like a 12-year-old with an air rifle? Why does everyone act so surprised when people get upset because they are never given an honest answer? Our police forces have to deal with this. It almost seems as if they have been told to shoot first and ask questions later. There must be some transparency in these matters. We all want answers. People were told they would get answer about Freddie Gray this Friday, May 1st. Now we are told that will not happen. And yet people are expected to stay calm, to not get angry.
The War on Drugs is supposedly over, but it isn’t. The War on Poverty ended too soon and did too little to be effective. We should be putting money into schools in poor neighborhoods. Higher education and/or training should be free, on us, paid for, with no loans as part of the package. We need to declare peace and a cease fire and mean it. We need to empty jails of low level offenders. We need to go back to community policing and mentoring. We need a few more moms like the Baltimore mom who show their children that they really mean it when they say they want them to have good lives.
I have heard some great ideas being kicked around. Now we need to collect them, plan how to implement them, and get on with it. Perhaps we’ll fail again, but we have to at least try. Let’s ignore the cries to do less, and do more! We have a long, long list of issues we need to deal with. Income inequality is supposed to be at the top of this list. Well here it is, in Baltimore and cities all across America. Americans need to know that it is still possible to find opportunities to succeed and be prosperous in America.
By Nancy Brisson