From Ferguson last summer to Baltimore this week, the alarms are sounding in the U.S. a half-century after the adoption of black civil rights laws. And they won’t stop ringing anytime soon.
The riots that erupted after the funeral of young Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody, have once again highlighted the fact that American society is still far from having recovered from its racism. There will be other Fergusons and other Baltimores, of course. Frustration doesn’t ask for permission to manifest itself. These riots are a perfectly understandable, if not legitimate, reaction to a government and public opinion that nurture the idea and the lie that cultural and systemic discrimination targeting the black minority – in education, health care and jobs – magically disappeared with federal anti-segregation laws in the 1960s.
The riots are the ugliest face of the frustration felt by a great number of black youth. However, they take up a disproportionate amount of media attention. But we can no longer deny that they are an objective inflamed reaction to a justice system and police force that are influenced by a culture rooted in racial profiling. Must I remind you that young African-Americans are 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than young white people, or that the courts disproportionately sentence them to death, or that they were the preferred cannon fodder of the U.S. during the Vietnam War (whose 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon was celebrated on Thursday)?
The current police chief in Baltimore, who came from San Francisco in 2012, created a stir last February when he declared that he was shocked by the “1950s-level black-and-white racism” that was prevalent within the department when he took office. Also, 50 officers were fired in recent years due to police brutality.
It must be said, then, that police officers are not neutral. They are an armed branch of the established order. It’s evident that policing needs to be profoundly reformed in order to break these bad habits. However, reforms will be superficial, as will social peace, without an across-the-board change in mindset.
Hence the urgency of the national dialogue – because clearly violence is a trap, as Martin Luther King said in his day. Some have proposed the creation of a sort of truth and reconciliation committee, like in South Africa. This is a very good idea.
What is wearisome, also, is the staunch moralism that President Obama uses to preach to his brothers every time their anger boils over. There is an urgent need for dialogue because black people, as James Baldwin writes in his essay “Journey to Atlanta,” have completely lost confidence in the American political system. There is urgency because even within the community, youth seem to have lost faith in their traditional leaders. If the old guard of the civil rights movement obtained formal political equality, so far, it has not resulted in a more substantial equality. On the contrary, in fact, economic inequality has increased, and there has been a re-segregation of schools and neighborhoods.
Baltimore is a clear case. It is one of a dozen American cities that have become, in the last 30 years, massively “gentrified,” as millennials or Generation Y – made up of young, educated, middle-class white people who grew up in the suburbs – move back into the city. This makes Baltimore a complicated mosaic, where white and black people live under the same roof, side by side but separate, and where the horizon of some is not the same for others.