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May 14, 2015

Riotís Legacy

Patricia A. Kelly

Things have definitely improved in the lives of black Americans, and for other persons of color. We have a black president, and many black senior government officials. More and more professionals show up in color. Almost every gubernatorial ticket in the last election in Maryland included a person of color.

There is no longer legally sanctioned discrimination against persons of color in this country.

In spite of improvements, there remains distrust and anger, especially among those still trapped in underserved communities.

Those of us who have experienced discrimination ourselves, such as women, were also made to suffer in the past, and still seek wages equal to those of men. But we, who were denied the vote and the right to seek lucrative employment, though we were chattel, were not subject to slavery, or to the institutional determination that we were not human beings.

This year has brought rioting in Black American communities, begun after conflicts between individual police and citizens.

It’s easy to see, from outside, how self-destructive it is to burn down your neighborhood, even though much of the destruction has been the work of outside agitators taking advantage of conflict, agitators who didn’t care about the impact of rioting and burning on the resident population.

Most telling was the comment that the cause of the recent Baltimore riot was the sense that no one was listening to community residents’ concerns. That comment may have been wrong this time, as there was publicity, both in Ferguson, MO, and in Baltimore, MD, during peaceful protests, and prior to the start of violence.

That concern, however, reflects the major underlying problem afflicting inner city poor: Not being heard and its result, which is hopelessness.

The reason people both riot and make babies at too early an age could be the same. When there is no opportunity, when one’s needs go repeatedly unmet, hopelessness can be the result. When you are hopeless, what difference do your actions make?

Just drive through the scene of the most recent riots, and check out Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. It’s desolate. It’s ugly. Potentially beautiful brick row houses sit boarded up and vacant. Prior attempts by the city to improve things by removing the most derelict ones have left the streets looking like rows of blindfolded faces, or a mouth with missing teeth.

One such neighborhood that I frequent on my way to downtown Baltimore is slashed down the middle by the “little freeway to nowhere,” very expensive, I’m sure; and yet it’s another serious blow to the sense of community in the neighborhood. All stores boast iron grills and safety glass. If the money for it were available, shop owners, lurking in darkened spaces behind blurry, yellow Plexiglas, would scan you before they let you in.

Intermittent blue flashes appear every block or so, from pole-mounted cameras. Many, desperate for safety, are glad to have them. Although some in the area seem to be wandering and aimless, occasional ladies in dresses sweep the sidewalks in front of their homes, brightening their corners of the neighborhood.

There aren’t many such ladies. Nor are there many moms like famous Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson’s, or the Baltimore mom who tore off her son’s mask and took him home from the riots. These two women created spaces in which their children could move forward, and really achieve in life. Most residents of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood have never even glimpsed possibility.

It’s fine and true to suggest that people should work and be responsible for themselves, but the ability to envision what that would look like is too often missing.

It’s time to take another look, and to bring some sense to attempts to find solutions, free stuff not being a solution that has worked very well.

First Lady Michelle Obama gave the commencement address at Tuskegee University recently. In her speech, she spoke of the history of oppression of black Americans, and the heroic efforts of early black heroes, from the Tuskegee Airmen to George Washington Carver. She exhorted the graduates to go out and continue in that tradition. It was a good speech.


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