White America’s Half Century of Shame: How the Media’s Baltimore Racism Reveals a Shocking Lack of Progress
In the United States, the color line is a paradox. It is story of continuity and change.
The color line in the Age of Obama, and the post-civil rights era more broadly, is built upon a skeleton of white supremacy and white privilege even while the shape of its superstructure may suggest that much racial progress has in fact been made.
In the United States, the result—a type of institutional white supremacy that still features moments of direct, interpersonal, “old-fashioned” racism by the State and white individuals against people of color—is a riddle of sorts, the answer to which most reasonable, just, and good people already know. Unfortunately, White America continues to treat justice along the color line as a type of unsolvable puzzle, when in reality the answers are readily apparent.
There has been substantive racial progress in the United States in terms of dismantling de jure white supremacy. But, the impact of centuries of white supremacy as law, day-to-day practice and culture has not been fully (or I would suggest even significantly) remediated.
The symbolic progress along the color line is substantial. The American people elected a black man as president. Post-civil rights era America features a multicultural neoliberal leadership class and elite. While embattled by the Great Recession, the black and brown professional classes comprise a substantial part of the African-American community. America’s popular culture is global—and one of its hallmarks is the hyper-visibility of black and brown faces. “Diversity,” “tolerance” and “anti-racism” are fully enshrined in America’s civil religion (even while not being fully embraced by all Americans in private or translating into full racial equality in the public sphere). The Black Freedom Struggle also inspired other groups of people such as gays and lesbians to fight for full equality under the law.
The symbolic progress along the color line exists in tension with semi-permanent racial inequality in a society structured to protect, maintain and advance white privilege.
For example, the United States maintains levels of school and residential segregation that have been unchanged since Jim and Jane Crow. Personal social networks are also highly segregated: 75 percent of white Americans do not have one non-white friend. Wealth and income inequality along the color line is stark: white Americans have at least 10 times the wealth of black Americans (with some estimates suggesting that the gap may be almost 70 times greater). The Republican Party and the White Right have launched a viciously racist assault on the won-in-blood victories of the Black Freedom Struggle such as the voting rights, civil rights and fair housing laws.
From the racist origins of modern policing in chattel slavery, through to Jim Crow-era debt peonage and chain gangs, the American criminal justice system remains one of the most racist and discriminatory political institutions in the United States as it disproportionately and more severely punishes black and brown Americans as compared to whites.
The body of Freddie Gray, and the community of Baltimore in which he lived, display those attributes in stark and bloody relief.
The 1968 Kerner Report on the urban “riots” of the 1960s is a magisterial accomplishment.
However, the Kerner Report was not the only document to detail and explore the causes of the urban rebellions of that tumultuous decade.
Less known among the general public, David Sears’ and Tim Tomlinson’s 1968 article “Riot Ideology in Los Angeles: A Study of Negro Attitudes” was part of pioneering work in public opinion that actually sought to understand the beliefs and values of black Americans who lived in the urban communities that rebelled against white supremacy and racial inequality during the 1960s.
Sears’ and Tomlinson’s findings about the divergent understandings held by white and black Americans in response to the urban rebellions in the 1960s resonate in the present.
For example, in the aftermath of the Baltimore uprising, NBC and The Wall Street Journal conducted a poll, which found:
Six-in-10 African-Americans said that the discord in Baltimore is attributable to “people with longstanding frustrations about police mistreatment of African Americans that have not been addressed.” Twenty-seven percent said that the riots were “caused by people who used the protests about the death of an African-American man in police custody as an excuse to engage in looting and violence.”
Among whites, those results were almost exactly flipped. Just 32 percent cited longstanding frustration about African-Americans’ treatment at the hands of police, while 58 percent said the Baltimore violence was caused by those using Gray’s death as an excuse for looting.
Sears and Tomlinson detailed how 58 percent of whites in their research felt that the Los Angeles area disturbances of 1965 were a “riot” as compared to 46 percent of blacks who felt the same way. Approximately 50 years later, white attitudes toward black “riots” have remained virtually unchanged.
By contrast, more than a third of blacks surveyed by Sears and Tomlinson felt that it was a “revolt, revolution, or insurrection.” Only 13 percent of whites had similar feelings. Almost a third of whites also felt that the “riots” were some type of “disaster, tragedy, mess, disgrace,” or other like term.
Sears’ and Tomlinson’s conversations with the black residents in the Los Angeles area during the time period of 1965 to 1966 revealed a sense of frustration, upset and dismay at how racism and classism limited the life chances of the people who lived there.
In the conclusion to “Riot Ideology in Los Angeles: A Study of Negro Attitudes,” Sears and Tomlinson write how:
The causes of the riot were described in terms of genuine grievances with those who were attacked; e.g., a history of friction, discrimination, and economic exploitation with local merchants and police. The purpose of the riot was seen as being, on the one hand, to call the attention of whites to Negro problems, and on the other, to express resentment against malefactors…Perhaps the most important fact of all is that so many Negroes felt disposed to justify and ennoble the riot after it was all over. It was not viewed as an alien disruption of their peaceful lives, but as an expression of protest by the Negro community as a whole, again an oppressive majority.
Business Insider’s recent story on the social, political and historical context for the killing of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore uprising mirrors the findings of Sears and Tomlinson:
Vaughn De Vaughn, a local teacher, told The Baltimore Sun: “This is about anger and frustration and them not knowing how to express it.”
Coates makes the point that “when nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.”
The Baltimore Sun revealed in an extensive investigation published in September that the city has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over police brutality lawsuits. The wording of the story’s opening sentences seem like ominous foreshadowing today — the newspaper noted that “the perception that officers are violent can poison the relationship between residents and police.”
Michael A. Fletcher wrote in The Washington Post that “it was only a matter of time before Baltimore exploded.”
He continued: “In the more than three decades I have called this city home, Baltimore has been a combustible mix of poverty, crime, and hopelessness, uncomfortably juxtaposed against rich history, friendly people, venerable institutions and pockets of old-money affluence.”
A New York Times profile of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood reveals a similar state of frustration, hurt and alienation from the American Dream:
With high school diplomas, they have struggled to find well-paying jobs. Ms. Fair, prodigious at crochet, helps pay the bills by selling hats and baby blankets. Mr. Chapman has a license to repair heating and air conditioning systems, and he is beginning to train for a license to drive a commercial truck.
Mr. Chapman and Ms. Fair say they are a family just trying to make it in Sandtown, but they feel smothered by the crime and poverty — and by the police, who regularly pull over their minivan. “Once they look in the car and they see it’s a female with two kids, their face changes,” Ms. Fair said.
Ms. Moody finished the thought. “Oh, it’s a family.”
A 2011 report on Sandtown and an adjacent area, Harlem Park, compared those neighborhoods’ social indicators with those of Baltimore as a whole — not a high bar, since the city lags the state of Maryland and the nation on many counts. Still, Sandtown and Harlem Park had roughly double the city’s rates of unemployment, poverty, homicides and shootings, as well as liquor and tobacco stores per capita. Lead-paint violations were four times the city average, as was the percentage of vacant buildings. Sandtown and Harlem Park also had more residents in jails and prisons than any other neighborhood in the city, a recent study by the Justice Policy Institute found, with an annual cost of $17 million just to lock them up.
The dominant white media framed the uprisings of the 1960s as “riots.” As such, even in the immediate shadow of Jim and Jane Crow white supremacy, few white Americans were able to connect the legitimate grievances that black Americans felt about jobs, justice and racial equality with the resulting urban unrest. In both the 1960s and the post-civil rights era, the mainstream news media has largely failed to provide a proper historical and political context for the events and struggles along the color line because it serves and defaults to the White Gaze and the White Racial Frame. There, black Americans are rendered as unreasonable and irrational as opposed to sensible, considered and full political beings who should be empathized with and respected.
In its coverage of the Baltimore uprising, the dominant media frame defaulted to an old habit as both right-wing propaganda operations such as Fox News and more “centrist” outlets such as CNN both disseminated a narrative of black “thugs,” “outside agitators” and “looters” who were interested in acting out the violence depicted in such movies as “The Purge.”
The most ethically and morally sick among the right-wing media and pundit classes defaulted to a white fantasy of African-American violence and bestiality that in turn legitimates anti-black violence, police thuggery and racism.
The National Review’s Ian Tuttle was especially noxious:
The riots, of course, had nothing to do with Freddie Gray. The anger over his death simply provided for the type of person who wants to rampage the excuse to do so. What makes the situation alarming is that the reaction of the powers-that-be was not to squelch hundreds of stampeding criminals, but to intellectualize away their animalism. Rather than clamp down on hordes of opportunistic thugs, Baltimore’s Oberlin-alumna mayor treated them as just extra-passionate protesters, whose interests required from the government a “balanced” response.
In the arena of practical politics and the 2016 presidential election the past lives in the present. The Republican use of “The Southern Strategy” involved efforts to gin up white racism and white racial resentment in the aftermath of the 1960s by evoking images of black criminality and “urban riots” to win white working-class and middle-class voters.
Right-wing elites and potential 2016 presidential candidates are already traveling in such cynical and racially fetid waters as they attempt to use the Baltimore Uprising to win white support.
There is an almost inevitable tragedy of loss, frustration and failure in the aftermath of the urban rebellions of the 1960s and the Baltimore uprising of 2015.
African-Americans who participated in the protests and uprisings actually believe(d) that those acts would get the attention of White America in such as a way as to produce positive change in their communities.
From “Riot Ideology in Los Angeles: A Study of Negro Attitudes”:
In seeing the riot as a protest, a majority of the Negro population thought of it as a social-change action the principle aims of which were change in living conditions and aggression against the oppressor. Expectations about outcome should thus serve as critical considerations in Negroes’ thinking about the value of riots as instruments of social change… By all odds the most salient expectation was that whites would begin to redress Negro grievances. The effect of the riot mention first by 43 percent of the Negro respondents was help from outside the Negro community. An additional 13 percent cited the effect of greater white awareness of Negro problems, and more comfortable relations between whites and Negroes. Thus, a majority thought first of favorable change among whites.
Tomlinson and Sears also offer the following sobering truth: “Thus the changes desired by both races follow a well-worn path in American race relations. The white population is mainly willing to adjust when it is easy and convenient to do so…”
Theirs is a powerful observation in an era where continuity and change coexist along the color line in a fitful paradox. African-American members of the leadership class, like their forefathers and foremothers in the black leadership class of decades past, use white racist language such as “thugs” to describe black protesters and resisters in cities like Baltimore and elsewhere—while not using the same language to describe the real thugs and criminals among an out-of-control police that routinely murder and abuse people of color (and the poor) with impunity.
The problems of economic and racial inequality that caused the urban rebellions of the 1960s are the very same ones that inspired and pushed the young people of Baltimore and other communities to rebel in the year 2015. But these old problems are treated as something novel and mysterious when in fact the causes have been well understood for decades.
With the killing of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore Uprising we are “back to the future”: Jim and Jane Crow white supremacy is a poltergeist that continues to haunt the American body politic in the 21st century.