We Shouldn't Be Surprised at the Anger in Baltimore, and Everywhere

I grew up white in a blue collar suburb of Baltimore, one mile west of the city line. In the wake of the Freddie Gray riots, followed by the Memorial Day Weekend shootings of 35 in Baltimore, it strikes me that had I grown up two miles to the east and been black, my life would have turned out very differently.

Perhaps I'd be dead.

First off, I had a father in my home, someone who more or less understood me, and showed me how to act responsibly when it wasn't easy. As Mitch Pearlstein shows in From Family Collapse to America's Decline, most white kids have fathers in the home; most African Americans do not. Educationally, economically, and psychologically this is a huge disadvantage for blacks.

A team led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty reported that the greatest (negative) statistical correlate of upward mobility is a community's percentage of single parent families. (See Where is the Land of Opportunity?). Baltimore was among the cities ranked highest for single parent families, and lowest for upward mobility.

There would have been institutional as well as individual barriers to my success.

The Baltimore County schools I attended were mediocre, but not horrendous. Nobody got beaten up for reading books. Some teachers snoozed, but others inspired. If you wanted to learn enough to prepare for college, you could probably do it.

That would have been less possible had I attended the overwhelmingly African American Baltimore City schools two miles away. Until the 1970s it was routine for teachers and administrators to secure jobs with contributions to the local political machine, not with amazing teaching or service. This provided employment and helped politicians, but failed to produce a system which served kids.

Then there were, and are, relations with police. Whites are conditioned to think of cops as protectors, but blacks have a different history, in Baltimore and most everywhere.

As Howell Baum writes in Brown in Baltimore, it was once routine for white cops to shoot blacks without cause and get away with it. In 1950 the police commissioner refused to discipline an officer who had in separate incidents shot six blacks, two fatally, since the officer in question shot only "disreputable characters." Nor was Baltimore unusual in this regard. In Beat Cop to Top Cop, John Timoney observed that in the 1970s the New York City Police Department routinely killed 90 to 100 civilians annually, many for questionable reasons and most of them black.

Not only was policing in black neighborhoods brutal; it was also ineffective. As a white in a mainly white neighborhood, I knew the police would protect me. If I mouthed off to the wrong person the worst I might get was a punch in the nose. Had I been black in Baltimore, I might have mouthed off to the wrong person and ended up dead. As black on black crime, my death would not have been a police priority. My killer would get away with murder, or at most serve a few years for killing someone who, like him, didn't matter.

From the 1960s on, 200 or so African Americans annually get murdered in Baltimore -- this year is on track to be higher -- but no one loses their jobs over this. Baltimore's young black dead are no one's priority. In sharp contrast, New York cut its homicide rate by 80% in ten years, and has kept it down since. Because homicide rates have little to do with whether they keep their jobs, Baltimore's police have no reason to copy the NYPD. All rhetoric to the contrary, in Baltimore and most cities, black on black crime is considered a social condition to be endured, not a social problem to be solved.

Rare cases like that on Staten Island notwithstanding, New York did not bring order via brutality. NYPD's 36,000 officers kill about a dozen civilians annually, nearly all of them justified and nearly 90% fewer than in the 1970s. That's because NYPD precinct commanders get demoted or promoted based on their performance, an innovation that has yet to catch on in Baltimore and other cities. Until it does, we can expect black bodies to keep piling high, no one caring how or why.

That is at the root of it all. If I were black, I just wouldn't matter.

A Baltimore native, Robert Maranto (rmaranto@uark.edu) is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He serves on the Arkansas Advisory Committee for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, though these views are his alone.