In July 1966, James Baldwin published “A Report from Occupied Territory,” a despairing essay in The Nation contemplating race relations in Harlem and other American cities. Describing the deep sense of alienation and despair in the black community, Baldwin wrote, “The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers — having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones — cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition.”
Fifty years later, it’s heartbreaking and infuriating to read those words and realize how little has changed.
The riots that erupted in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries in police custody last month, were as predictable as they were painful to watch. Across the country, Gray is the latest in a long line of black men killed, inexplicably, in brushes with the law; Baltimore is the latest city, but probably not the last, where blacks’ legitimate frustration has reached a boiling point and spilled into the streets.
And yet the unrest in Baltimore and other cities is about more than a single death or even the single issue of police brutality. It’s about the structural racism, inequality and poverty that have pervaded our cities and plagued our society for too long.
Indeed, the profound divisions now on display mirror the findings of the Kerner Commission, which President Lyndon B. Johnson established to study the root causes of the 1967 race riots. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” the commission famously warned us. “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans,” it reported, adding that the media had “not communicated to the majority of their audience — which is white — a sense of the degradation, misery and hopelessness of life in the ghetto.”
That criticism of the media resonates today, as sensational coverage of the destruction and looting too often has disregarded the systemic devastation of the communities in which they are taking place.
But the separation between white society and the black ghetto, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein explains, was deliberate. Even after the end of Jim Crow, decades of discriminatory housing and criminal justice policies have conspired to confine many black Americans in the ghetto — or prison — with little hope for the future. “Baltimore, not at all uniquely, has experienced a century of public policy designed, consciously so, to segregate and impoverish its black population,” Rothstein writes.
The tragic consequences for America’s urban communities have become impossible to ignore. In Baltimore, for instance, there is an appalling 19-year decline in life expectancy over the span of just three miles. According to The Washington Post, “Fifteen Baltimore neighborhoods have lower life expectancies than North Korea. Eight are doing worse than Syria.” Meanwhile, a recent New York Times analysis found that about 1.5 million black men are “missing” from society, mostly as a result of incarceration and early death.
It’s inspiring to see leaders such as Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who last week announced charges against six officers involved in Gray’s arrest, with the courage to fight for justice — and speak directly to protesters about their power. At just 35 years old, Mosby is the “youngest top prosecutor in any major American city,” according to The New York Times, and her election, against an incumbent who was seen as too soft on police brutality, demonstrates the power of participating in the democratic process at the state and local level.
There is also some hope to be found, as I wrote earlier this year, in the increasingly “transpartisan” momentum for criminal justice reform that addresses the issues of mass incarceration and unaccountable policing. Though these efforts are essential, they are nowhere near enough.
This moment requires a national urban agenda that recognizes the urgency of our problems — one that fixes our broken criminal justice system and the inequality that keeps too many black Americans trapped in a prison of poverty. We need a serious urban agenda that promotes the education and employment opportunities — including green jobs — that will offer impoverished Americans a path out of the ghetto and, just as importantly, hope.
And with the Republican majority in Congress pushing harmful cuts to urban renewal programs, we need bold political leadership to make solving extreme poverty a national priority. If we don’t, as James Baldwin wrote, “the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.”
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation.