Friday, May 29, 2015

Why Baltimore Blew Up

Amid anger and protests in Baltimore following the unexplained death of 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray from a spinal injury sustained in a police paddy-wagon after being arrested, Baltimore exploded in protests.  But the American media did not use the that opportunity to talk about the poverty-ridden neighborhood in which Gray grew up.

The media didn't use the opportunity to have a conversation about the economic disadvantages that Gray, his peers, and so many young African American adults, are disadvantaged by the current socio-economic conditions found in minority neighborhoods throughout Baltimore and in other U.S. metro areas from the very beginning of their lives.

Neither did the American media use the opportunity to talk about the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of illegal searches and arrests across decades of discriminatory policing policies, the debate revolved around whether or not the teenagers who set fire to two West Baltimore CVS stores after Gray's death were "thugs," or merely wrongheaded criminals.

From Eric Garner to Michael Brown to Akai Gurley to Tamir Rice to Walter Scott and now Freddie Gray, there have now been so many police killings of African-American men and boys in the past calendar year or so that it's been easy for both the media and the political mainstream to sell us on the idea that the killings are the whole story.

Go to any predominantly minority low-income neighborhood in any major American city and you'll see the same story:
  • Children born in low-income neighborhoods will go to bad schools and bad schools mean low educational attainment. In Baltimore, 22 percent of African Americans have no high school diploma compared to 15 percent of whites. At the national level, the ratio is 2:1 - 15 percent to 7.6 percent.
  • Low educational attainment mean no jobs. The unemployment rate among African Americans is 10.4 percent — twice that of whites. But that is not the whole picture. The underemployment rate is more relevant, because it reflects more accurately the real amount of pain in the system. The underemployment rate includes people who are so discouraged that they are not looking for work any more or they no longer have gas money to look for a job. This group — 11 percent of the labor force at the national level — also includes those who would like to work full time but can only find part time jobs. Among African Americans, the underemployment rate is a whopping 22 percent. 
  • No jobs means no incomes. In Baltimore, 12 percent of African American families have total incomes less than $10,000 compared to just 4 percent of whites. Poverty rates in Baltimore are also much higher among African Americans than among whites: 28 percent versus 15 percent.  At the national level 13.9 percent of African American families earn less than $20,000. The comparable share among whites is 5.5 percent.
  • No Jobs and no income puts too many young black men on the streets where too many police officers too often harass young black men, throw them against walls, kick them, searched them without cause, strip them naked on busy city streets, threaten them with visits from child protective services, set service dogs against them, and arrest and jail them on false pretenses.
  • The criminalization of America’s poor has been quietly gaining steam for years, but a recent study, “The Poor Get Prison,” co-authored by Karen Dolan and Jodi L. Carr, reveals the startling extent to which American municipalities are fining and jailing the country’s most vulnerable people, not just punishing them for being poor, but driving them deeper into poverty.
    A few months ago, the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report revealed how that city has disproportionately targeted its majority minority population with traffic and other minor infractions that heavily support the municipality's coffers.

    But Ferguson is far from alone. Municipalities like New York City have greatly increased the number of minor offenses that are considered criminal (like putting your feet up in the subway) or sitting on the sidewalk. Wealthy white people in business attire are rarely targeted for such summonses, and if they are, they can quickly pay the fine or hire counsel to get out of it. The over-punishment of minor offenses is just another way the rich get richer, and as the report says, the “poor get prison.” They also get poorer and more numerous. In one striking statistic, the Southern Educational Foundation reports that 51 percent of America’s public schoolchildren are living in poverty.

    Perversely, it is the poor who, according to Dolan and Carr, are subsidizing municipalities’ budgets and becoming reliable sources of enrichment for the private companies contracted by local governments to carry out what used to be government duties.
  • Black students make up just 16 percent of the population but represent 32-42 percent of students who are suspended or expelled, according to the Ferguson “The Poor Get Prison” report. Many school districts around the country use local police to provide security, which further increases these students’ chances of arrest. Zero tolerance policies, combined with law enforcement officers at the doors and in the hallways and you have a poor and black student body — both demographics considered potential criminals from the time they board the bus in the morning — create an environment ripe for unnecessarily harsh and punitive actions against black students.
    Studies show that students with disabilities are also disproportionately affected by overly harsh punishments at school caused by a widespread cultural bias against black youth, especially black male youth, even small children. The presumption that black schoolchildren are potential criminals seems to play into the disparity in the levels and severity of discipline when you compare them with white schoolchildren.
This is the system now standard in most of urban America. Most [suburban] Americans have never experienced this kind of policing. They haven't had to stare down the barrel of a service revolver drawn for no reason at a routine stop. Most suburban and rural Americans simply do not have a frame of reference to understand the world of African Americans and Latino Americans who live in urban America.

More about Why Baltimore Blew Up at The Rolling Stone

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