When asked about Baltimore last week, President Obama said this:
“... if we think that we’re just gonna send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise (in our inner cities), without as a nation and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities ... then we’re not gonna solve this problem.”
“We can’t just leave this to the police. I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching. I think there are some communities that have to do some soul searching. But I think we, as a country, have to do some soul searching.”
The president is right. But how, exactly, does a nation go about searching its soul in times like these?
Perhaps it begins by reflecting on his own brilliant words from the 2004 Democratic Convention – the words that set him on the path to the White House. “There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America,” Barack Obama said that night, “there's the United States of America.”
That summer evening seems so long ago now.
On an aspirational level, the president may have been right. But on the streets where human beings eat and breathe and live and die, another reality prevails. When young black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white males, then at least in one sense they are living in a very different country from that of their white counterparts.
When we ask America to search its soul, which America are we talking about?
Personal and State Violence
Violence, like the nation itself, takes different forms. The events in Baltimore were manifestations of personal violence, amplified by crowd behavior. They were triggered by state violence, represented by the unrestrained excesses of police officers. That form of violence seems to have been especially severe in Baltimore. (The Baltimore Sun ran an excellent investigation into police abuses last year.)
Police/community conflict may be exacerbated by the influence of the for-profit prison movement, which the Washington Post recently called “the biggest lobby nobody's talking about.” The beds in for-profit prisons must be filled, sometimes by contract with the state.
And filled they are. By the age of 28, according to a detailed study of young Baltimore residents, 49 percent of African-American males have been convicted of a crime – and have a much harder time finding work than their white peers.
Nowadays the police aren't just "keeping the peace" in America's inner cities; whether by design or not, they're also recruiting clientele for the prison industry.
The Thin Blue-Collar Line
It would be a mistake to assume that the problem begins and ends with police aggression. There are class issues at work here too. We often forget that the thin blue line is a blue-collar line. Police officers of all races come from yet another of our many Americas: that nation of working-class people who have been struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis, even as their prospects for the future have dimmed.
As employment and wage growth lagged for the middle class, the police/prison economy became one of the few expanding avenues for employment. It's no wonder that correctional employees rallied against prison closings last year in upstate New York. (My home town, Utica N.Y., lost many of its jobs and nearly half its population after the boom years of the 20th century, and many of its jobs to offshoring; today Mid-State Correctional Facility is one of the few major employers in the area.)
Police officers in urban America, like correctional officers, are themselves often struggling to escape economic hardship. Once hired, they are assigned to departments that are too often over-militarized and disconnected from the communities they are supposed to serve. In many cases that's given rise to a “dysfunctional police culture” that promotes an ethic of “officer survival” rather than a higher sense of purpose, idealism and service.
If too many police officers focus on self-preservation over duty, that reflects the failure of our society to inspire them with a sense of mission. But their mission becomes harder to define when the communities they serve are experiencing a deeper form of violence on an everyday basis: a structural violence that dooms them to repeating cycles of poverty, inequality, poor health, disability and an early death.
That kind of violence is beyond the reach of any weapon. But structural violence is real – and it kills. Some basic statistics: The life expectancy of a baby born in Baltimore's poorest neighborhood is nearly 20 years shorter than that of a baby born in its wealthiest areas. Disability and infant mortality statistics are grim. Fifteen Baltimore neighborhoods have lower life expectancies than North Korea.
One in every four Baltimore residents lives below the poverty line. In recent weeks even water, one of life's most basic elements, has been denied to its inner-city residents. City officials sent shutoff notices to as many as 25,000 residents last month, some for amounts as low as $250 (and without any reported action against the large businesses who have failed to pay their Baltimore water bills). This was done even as Baltimore County was raising its water rates by 15 percent last month.
Denying water to city residents poses a threat to public health. It is also, according to the United Nations, a violation of “the most basic human rights of residents.” (That observation was made when Detroit began shutting off water to low-income residents, a process which is scheduled to resume this month.)
Structural violence is the deepest and deadliest form of violence in our country, and it is a byproduct of inequality. Until it is addressed, simmering tensions may continue to erupt into open conflicts like Baltimore's - or worse.
The wealthiest among us seem to understand this. As economist Robert Johnson told us recently – and said to a “packed session” last year at the gathering of the financial elite in Davos – some of them are already planning their escapes. As Johnson said at Davos: “I know hedge fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway.”
But most Americans - whether white or black, young or old, gay or straight - don't have that luxury. For us, for better or worse, there is no escape from our shared future. In that sense, at least, the president was right in 2004: there is only one America.
You won't see structural violence on the television news, because it isn't the stuff of headlines. Johan Galtung, the Norwegian sociologist and mathematician who invented the field of conflict resolution, explained why in a 1969 paper:
“Personal violence represents change and dynamism – not only ripples on waves, but waves on otherwise tranquil waters. Structural violence is silent, it does not show - it is essentially static, it is the tranquil waters.”
When he spoke of Baltimore the other day, President Obama predicted that “we’ll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets. And everybody will feign concern until it goes away and then we go about our business as usual.”
He is almost certainly right. But the president did not offer a clear vision for ending the structural failures that have generated this cycle of conflict. That vision is urgently needed. The time for soul searching is now.
The curfew has been lifted in Baltimore. But the poverty remains, and so does the death and injury it brings. The waters are tranquil tonight. But across the many Americas, our common future is hidden in shadows.