The Sunday Times: The friction making Baltimore burn is not race but class

Photo: Skitter Photo

Photo: Skitter Photo

The riots in Ferguson, Missouri, last year were provoked by racism. No rational person could argue otherwise after a black man was shot dead by a white police officer. The facts speak for themselves. This small suburb adjacent to the port city of St Louis has only 21,000 residents, two-­‐thirds of whom are black. Yet its officials are almost without exception white — from the 94% white police force to the white mayor, the white police chief and almost all-­‐white city council.

In Ferguson’s case, at least, one answer to the institutional imbalance is relatively easy to see: encourage more people to vote in local elections and they will have more say in the outcome. A mere 6% of black voters took part in the 2013 local elections. It stands to reason, if more people within the community are involved in its decision-making processes there is a greater chance that the right kind of change will happen from within.

Last week’s riots in Baltimore, Maryland, resembled those of Ferguson. The flashpoint looked the same: a black male, Freddie Gray, was killed at the hands of the police in a city with a history of police brutality while making arrests. Yet, as commentators are beginning to point out, Baltimore has little in common with Ferguson.

It is true that this city of 622,000 inhabitants is 63% black, but that is reflected in the racial make-up of its officials. The mayor, the majority of the city council, the police commissioner and half the police force are black. As a resident of Gray’s neighbourhood, Sandtown-Winchester, told a reporter the day after the rioting: “It ain’t no race thing — it’s not a race thing at all.” This time, the real culprit is class.

Baltimore is by no means free of racism. Moreover, there is an unmistakable link between poverty and race in the city. In contrast to Ferguson’s obvious race issue, however, the complexity behind the catch-all phrase of “class” means we have to delve deeper and work harder to untangle the myriad causes that helped to turn Sandtown-Winchester into a firestorm.

It’s vital to do this not least because riots leave behind a blight that infects a city for decades. The 1968 riots that erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King spread to 125 cities, Baltimore among them. President Lyndon Johnson eventually had to deploy the National Guard, the regular army and the marines to restore peace. Civil order did return, but not some of the burnt-out businesses, or the frightened middle classes who left to start a new life in the suburbs.

The physical scars from 47 years ago remain in many cities: commercial life in Chicago’s West Side never returned; in Detroit the fires never properly went out; in Washington, H Street is still grinding through the process of regeneration.

In Baltimore, not only was the local economic base shattered in 1968, but the people who remained were caught between rock-bottom housing values and sky-high insurance rates. In 2012 it was estimated that the city had almost 47,000 vacant houses; entire blocks boarded up and simply rotting away.

HBO’s highly praised crime drama The Wire (which ended in 2008) portrayed Baltimore as a city without hope. Its characters had ambitions, certainly, but the show never suggested that the social ecosystem of the city could be changed. That view reinforced the perception of the city’s poor as either helpless victims or irredeemable savages (depending on your political bent), but it didn’t begin to tell the whole story about Baltimore, its genuine economic strides over the past decade or its various initiatives to rebuild communities and improve living conditions.

This is the other reason why ascribing class tensions to the Freddie Gray riot can only be the start of an investigation into the city, rather than its conclusion. Baltimore is made up of multiple narratives, some of them contradictory and confusing, and all of them interconnected.

One narrative popular with conservative commentators is the obvious imbalance of the city’s political machinery. Baltimore is a one-party city, with all the inertia and dependency-building that implies. The Democrats have been in control for more than 40 years, overseeing middle-class flight, high crime (with a murder rate eight times higher than New York’s) and a rising tax bill.

Another narrative is about the loss of living-wage jobs, especially in manufacturing, that has happened regardless of the riots. Their place has been taken by low-wage service jobs, which come without benefits or sick leave and don’t even allow a single parent to provide for his or her family. According to one estimate, black workers make up more than 70% of these below poverty-level jobs. The one sector that is growing in Baltimore, Stem — science, technology, engineering and maths — has no use for people who barely finished high school.

Finally, though, there have to be solutions to Baltimore’s ills, as well as narratives about how they came to be. They can be found. One lies in remarkable research that was published last year called the Beginning School Study. In 1982, sociologists began a continuing study following around 800 first-graders (six-year-olds) from a mixture of poor and middle-class Baltimore neighbourhoods.

Among the depressing statistics about how many ended up dead, or in jail, or as drug addicts, or single parents, are also some vital lessons about what had failed these children and what could have helped. Not surprisingly, family stability was key. So was education. The difference between the poor and middle-class children lies not only in the quality of education but in its quantity. Although it is not what the teaching unions want to hear, the study showed that it was the extra hours beyond the official school day — summer school, afterschool, early school — that offered the greatest protection and help to disadvantaged children.

It is an uncomplicated remedy, rather like helping black residents in Ferguson to register to vote, that holds the promise of a radically different future for Baltimore. The question right now is, when the shouting in Sandtown-Winchester stops, will the city be ready to listen?

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