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Underlying dynamics of civil unrest in Baltimore are same as identified 50 years ago

Absent jobs in minority communities, law enforcement reform is unlikely to break the cycle of hopelessness, despair and anger that lead to social disorder and, in turn, more racial polarization and repression. 

The indictment of six Baltimore police officers in connection with the death of Freddie Gray was greeted with cheers from many in Baltimore and a collective sigh of relief from much of the country. At the same time, fully 96 percent of Americans expect additional racial disturbances this summer, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.

For better or worse, the polls are probably right. Although the indictments may quell the anger in Baltimore, the underlying dynamics that fuel the cycle of police violence and community outrage in so many American cities will not change in the absence of deep reforms. Neither indictments nor body cameras will be enough.

What are those underlying dynamics?

They’re the same as those identified nearly 50 years ago by the Kerner Commission following the deadly urban riots that rocked Detroit, Newark and other cities in the summer of 1967.

As in Baltimore and Ferguson, many of the riots examined in 1967 were triggered by aggressive policing in African-American neighborhoods shaped by racism, extreme poverty and deprivation. Faced with demands for increased protection in areas struggling with crime, police had adopted tactics that created tension and hostility.

The same dynamic exists today. As FBI Director James B. Comey acknowledged in February, many police officers, whether white or black, develop biases about African Americans when working in black communities with high crime rates.  Law enforcement, at times during our history, he said, has been “brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”

Spurred by the outcry over the events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere, we’re seeing momentum for change. Policing practices are being scrutinized as they haven’t been for at least two decades. The New York Times recently reported that a “small but vocal set of law enforcement officials,” as well as several big city police departments, are beginning to rethink long-held ideas about when to use force and when to avoid it.  Baltimore’s mayor has asked the Justice Department to help the city reform its police practices.

Obviously, these are encouraging developments that need to be supported and amplified. But, by themselves, the reforms that are on the table probably will do little to break the cycle of hopelessness, despair and anger that lead to social disorder and, in turn, more racial polarization and repression.

Economic opportunity in areas isolated by racism is at the heart of the issue. “Pervasive unemployment and underemployment are the most persistent and serious grievances in minority areas,” the Kerner Commission wrote. “They are inextricably linked to the problem of civil disorder.”

Again, little has changed in the decades since. 

In his 1997 book When Work Disappears, the highly respected sociologist William Julius Wilson pointed out the corrosive impact of increased globalization and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs that previously anchored many minority communities. “For the first time in the 20th century, most adults in many inner-city ghetto neighborhoods are not working in a typical week,” Wilson wrote.  The consequences are devastating, according to Wilson: higher levels not simply of poverty but also of social disorganization, family dissolution, and crime.  

Wilson could have been talking about the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up – a place where 97 percent of residents are black and the unemployment rate is 52 percent. Only one in four adults there has a high school diploma, according to The Los Angeles Times, and young African Americans are “nearly as likely to be arrested as they are to finish high school.” As in so many other cities, the country’s addiction to mass incarceration has taken a heavy toll.

The neighborhood’s homicide rate is nearly double the rate of Baltimore, which has one of the country’s highest.

Given this combustible cocktail of structural racism and social ills, it should surprise no one that abrasive police tactics, related in no small measure to the drug war, once again have ignited an explosion of rage.

We all seem to recognize the problem. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, for example, an overwhelming majority of Americans said job creation should be a top political priority this year.  Most of us know that we need to build schools, not prisons – bridges, not walls.

But the question is whether our political system can overcome deep ideological divisions to deliver solutions. It’s a matter of whether we have the collective will to do what is needed.

In its most famous passage, the Kerner Commission report said, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

To continue on the present course – to ignore the voices of despair – will, as the Commission also warned, “involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”