Work and Days

Decoding the Rules of Baltimore


NBC’s Al Sharpton shakes hands with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as she prepares to speak at a summit to address issues surrounding the death of Freddie Gray and its aftermath at New Shiloh Baptist Church, Thursday, April 30, 2015, in Baltimore. Note the “No Justice, No Peace” slogan behind them. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

No one knows what exactly happened to the deceased Freddie Gray, except that it should not have happened. Between what is outlined in the indictments and what will be proven in court is an unknown abyss. But the more dramatic the short-term exuberance over the sweeping indictments, the more likely the long-term fury when the charges are likely to be substantially reduced or unproven in court.

Almost everyone blames the subsequent Baltimore rioting on some –ism — endemic racism, economic inequality, the lack of jobs, the legacy of slavery, systematic police brutality and insensitivity, the pathologies of the black underclass, the destruction of the black family and on and on. However, most of America, rich and poor, black, white and other, liberal and conservative can more or less chart the conditions that explain a Ferguson or Baltimore — and remain quiet about it. At this point, I don’t think much will change until action follows rhetoric and someone like Barack Obama symbolically puts his kids in the public schools rather than at Sidwell Friends, or some of the loud MSNBC team choose to live, in desegregated style, in the Baltimore inner city, or Apple and Google grandees mentor East Palo Alto gangbangers, or an Al Gore recruits inner-city youth on his green staffs, or a Warren Buffett leads a national effort on the part of plutocrats to invest money in Detroit or Oakland shopping centers. And as long as the proverbial black community has self-appointed adjudicators of racial redress that blame pathologies on cosmic racism rather than demand introspection — of the likes of the Revs. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Jeremiah Wright, in a way quite unlike the Asian, Jewish, ethnic, and Latino communities — things will not change much. Is there a Cuban or Chinese or Korean national reverend who takes it upon himself to agitate and negotiate collective grievances?

Until then, let us review the Baltimore Rules:

1) Statistics are irrelevant. Emotion rules and no one cares about larger statistical challenges. Blacks make up almost 13% of the population and commit 52% of the nation’s murders. Based on their statistical representation in the U.S. population, African-Americans on average are eight times more likely to inflict a violent crime and six times more likely to suffer a criminal act than is the general population. This fact is irrelevant; it is not the numbers per se that frame black homicide, but the conditions under which they occur that seem to matter. “Black lives matter” supposedly translates into the fact that blacks might be able to pressure police (of all races) from taking 200 black lives a year during arrests, but can do little if anything about stopping 6,000 black murders at the hands of other blacks. Darren Wilson serves as an easy poster boy for the public enemy, but a Crip gangbanger is a quite different candidate for group-hate.

In quite rare, but highly charged interracial murders, African-Americans are almost twice as likely to kill whites as whites are blacks. This, too, is irrelevant for a variety of reasons. Historically blacks suffered from the racism of a white majority, not whites from a black minority. Whites are hardly likely to protest about this imbalance given the rarity of interracial crime and the rarity of whites rioting on the basis of racial grievances. Most liberal professionals understand privately how to navigate travel in the inner city and how publicly to decry just such insidious stereotyping and profiling. Few of the 14% of murdered white crime victims who were killed by blacks are the elite and thus the problem remains minor.

Black youths (over 13% of the nation’s youth population) make up 52% of juvenile violent crime arrests, including 58.5% of those for homicide and 67% for robbery. Blacks commit hate crimes against other races at rates proportionally far higher than do whites, based on their respective populations. These imbalances probably suggest why police brutality may be higher during black than white arrests, but it is also irrelevant. As a nation we expect police to be professional 100% of the time during arrests and to be indifferent to the fact that less than 13% of the population is committing well over half the nation’s violent crime, higher in the inner city. A suspect may have a prior arrest record of over 20 felonies, but if he were treated any differently from someone who has never been arrested, then the police are at fault. Such perfection is as it should be, but then again few know much about the average day of a police person in the inner city. For now, disproportionally high black crime rates mean far more black arrests and more opportunities for something like what happened in Baltimore.

Liberals say that these depressing statistics reflect either current racism and the legacy of slavery or undue policing and unequal application of the law; conservatives suggest that if black crime statistics reflected the percentages prevalent in other ethnic groups, then policing practices would become largely irrelevant. Or alternatively, inner-city police forces would have to become entirely African-American, on the theory that either supposedly racially driven police brutality would cease, or if it continued, the race of the perpetrator would mitigate popular outcry.

2) Causation is irrelevant. Turn on the television and talking head A decries black unemployment, racism, and lack of federal money as the causes of the riots and violence. Talking head B points to the destruction of the black family, dependence on entitlement rather than self-help, a sense of victimization and pathologies from sky-high illegitimacy to a lack of emphasis on education. In general, during a riot, no one much cares about the causation. All that matters is the superficial fact of not achieving parity, not how or why it occurred.

The $30 trillion War on Poverty over the last half-century left the poverty rate about the same as when the Great Society began. Those invested in such largess will say it was never enough, while critics will insist it was the cause not the solution in the first place. The only relevant point is that violence or the threat of violence usually results in some sort of federal money and expansion of government programs. As long as there is a sense that money follows unrest, riots will continue — even if the cost-to-benefit ratios are not favorable to the rioters.

3) Rioting has advantages. Once violence descends into the streets, stores are looted and burned down, and people hurt, usually law and custom are suspended in a desire to cease the violence. No one really cares whether the charges lodged against the six charged officers are plausible, only that they were at least charged. The theory of a scapegoat or sacrificial pawn operates. No one cares that the authorities may have ordered the police to stand down and not to arrest protestors, only that they did. No one cares that the state attorney had about as serious a conflict of interest as possible (she is a close friend and associate of the deceased family’s attorney who is calling for indictments; her husband is a council member in a district dependent on the votes of an outraged electorate). We forget the lessons of the 1950s Western: when the mob approaches the jail and demands a hanging (usually in “no justice, no peace” fashion), either the accused is spirited out of town, the sheriff stands down the mob, or the mob lynches the accused. Any of these three alternatives brings peace — in the short term. Given that the Baltimore police cannot flee the state, and given that no one stood down the mob, then quick indictments and subsequent guaranteed convictions by state or federal authorities (our postmodern version of a hanging) are about the only means of quieting the unrest. Rioting is an effective political tool.

Note a footnote on racial rioting. The perpetrators usually loot, harm, and burn their immediate vicinities. Four possible causes explain this phenomenon: a) it is far more convenient to riot in your own neighborhood; b) many of the targeted stores and their owners are deemed to be inauthentic members of the community (the owners are either racial minorities other than blacks, or considered entrepreneurs and at odds with the community); c) the police might not stand down if the rioting migrated to an upscale suburban shopping center; d) other minority groups and whites might arm and resist if the rioting hit their neighborhoods.

4) Racialism is OK. In times of rioting, blanket racialist statements are fine. Black leaders decry that the rioters were burning “their own community” — with the obvious inference that if they were not and torching another ethnic community, it might not be so regrettable. The television audience assumes that the protestors will voice racialist anger, and that this is a legitimate sort of venting. Talking of white supremacy and racism is considered normal discourse in a way referencing black inner-city pathology is not. “Thug” is a racist word if voiced by someone not black, merely problematic if by the president or mayor. The state attorney, in outlining her indictment, can appeal in explicit language to racial solidarity, in the sense that she is seeking justice for her community rather than for the city at large — and in such a quid pro quo she expects peace for issuing arrest warrants.

5) Politics is irrelevant. During the Ferguson rioting, it was charged that racial underrepresentation fueled the violence. But in Baltimore, all the principals are black: the mayor, police chief, city attorney, and a majority of the city council. Three of the accused officers are black. The president of the United States and the attorney general are black. It matters little.  Perhaps the fact of a mostly black establishment seemed to intensify the anger. If there is no supposedly racist cabal to blame, then who is to blame? The community itself? Elected officials? The mayor? Black police? Police chief? DA? President Obama? And on what grounds — racism? For now we are left only with the fact that the Baltimore police force is 40% rather than 80-90% black as an extenuating circumstance — and we should expect to see those percentages radically change.

6) Warning of more. It is always wise to hint that more violence will follow. Political leaders, Sharpton-like incendiaries, op-ed writers, and black community and religious leaders all hint that Baltimore may be the wave of the future — with obvious implications that unless more federal resources are invested in their agendas, or unless their own statures magnify, more violence will follow. That mostly elites cynically use the threat of violence of mostly non-elites is never remarked upon. It is easy to write a smarmy op-ed declaring that unless A happens, then B will occur, but more difficult to calibrate the growing backlash of those who are not in sympathy with the Baltimore rioters — which may well be over 70% of the population. Certainly, identification largely by racial affinity is a dangerous thing to do in America, because such solidarity only breeds solidarity in others that may be more numerous and growing just as angry. Vocal and ubiquitous talk of white supremacy as the mother lode of all racial unhappiness does not sell well outside the New York television studio — especially among the lower middle classes and poor who are not black and do not feel themselves particularly privileged at the expense of blacks.

A year from now, an out-of-the-news Baltimore will be a little poorer, smaller, and less frequented.

The future of all this racialization is not good.

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