Earlier this week, President Obama commented on protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. He talked about how our nation must rethink policing and reform criminal justice, but we must also confront the roots of these issues in “impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity.”
It’s no accident that communities of color, and particularly black communities, are often the ones lacking opportunity. That lack of opportunity isn’t just luck of the birth lottery—the lottery’s odds are set in favor of some and against others. Emily Badger lays out just how that lack of opportunity came to be, from redlining that destroyed the value of homes in black neighborhoods, to urban renewal projects that fragmented and displaced black communities, to mass incarceration that criminalized large segments of generations of men of color, to predatory home-ownership and banking practices that targeted people of color as they began to build wealth. Badger explains how these policies and practices replicate:
[E]ach of these shocks further diminished the capacity of low-income urban black communities to recover from the one that came next. It’s an irony, a fundamental urban inequality, created over the years by active decisions and government policies that have undermined the same people and sapped them of their ability to rebuild, that have again and again dismantled the same communities, each time making them socially, economically, and politically weaker.
None of this is an accident. And none of it as simple as individual racial bias. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said yesterday at Johns Hopkins University, “It’s the policy that’s the threat.” Government policy has created advantages for white wealth building while actively destroying black wealth where it exists.
Violence has made that cycle of exploitation and oppression possible. As Coates said yesterday, “the lives of black people in this city, the lives of black people in this country have been violent for a long time.” The enforcement of enslavement, of Jim Crow, of mass incarceration, happened and happens through violence with the direct or indirect backing of the government. This history of violence is hardly acknowledged in public appeals for peace. Coates, as usual, says it best:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. 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. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
It would be a mistake to assume that outrage and desperation expressed in nonviolent and violent demonstrations arise just from a lack of opportunity in high-poverty communities. Those expressions also arise from awareness of a long cycle of violence and disrespect in our laws and their enforcement. We can’t address the first, without acknowledging—and ending—the latter.