The Parable of Baltimore | Sojourners

The Parable of Baltimore

Baltimore, like Ferguson, is a parable — a story that can teach us important lessons. It's one in which we should see that we are, for the most part, still missing the most important lessons.

The Baltimore story began with yet another incident between a young black man and the police. A 25-year-old African-American named Freddie Gray was picked up by the Baltimore police and died of injuries he received in police custody after being put into a police van and not receiving the medical help he needed. Last week Gray's death was called a homicide, and the six officers involved were charged for it.

Protests that were disciplined, articulate, and nonviolent rose up, lasting for many days to focus attention on Freddie Gray and what happened to him — until last weekend, when some lawbreakers took control of the streets and began looting, burning businesses and cars, and attacking police. Saturday and Monday night were dramatic, with images of violence, looting, and burning predictably played and replayed ad infinitum by the cable news channels. The national media swooped in to cover the "riots," the National Guard was called in, Orioles baseball games were postponed or closed to the public, and Baltimore made national headlines.

But by Tuesday, literally the day after the most serious night of violence, citizens all over Baltimore — led by clergy, community leaders, and African-American political leaders — moved in to condemn the violence, take back the streets, begin to clean up their city, and call for both healing and justice. It was one of the best examples I have seen of the church stepping up to be the church.

Decades of bad behavior on the part of Baltimore's police force in relation to the black community were brought to light, as in other circumstances of young black men dying at the hands of police. But the parable of Baltimore needs to go deeper.

In Baltimore, unlike Ferguson, the current mayor and police chief are also African-American, as is a significant portion of the police force. Unfortunately, other cities with black leaders and diverse police officers also have problems with the use of excessive force against young black men, and the lessons learned here must go deeper than just the diversity of local police forces and political leaders.

As the Freddie Gray story and the responses to it began to unfold, some of those lessons started to become clear — if we are willing to listen and learn.

First we learned that, as a boy, Freddie was a victim of lead poisoning, as are an estimated half a million American children — disproportionately African Americans — and the lead poisoning seemed to relate to Gray's vulnerable health issues and medical condition.

In Freddie's black neighborhood, a majority of adults 16 to 64 were unemployed in 2012, and a third haven't even finished high school, in public schools that everyone knows are not educating the black children sent to them.

In black and brown neighborhoods across this country, we are not educating black and brown young people — and the society is accepting that. And even in black neighborhoods in places like Baltimore, manufacturing jobs that could support a family are not there anymore. Jobs and families have been replaced by no jobs or only very low-paying jobs, which inevitably leads to the disintegration of family life. Joblessness leads to hopelessness, lack of education leads to more joblessness, and the lack of education and jobs leads to family breakdown. Add substance abuse to hopelessness and a drug industry replacing real industry, and everything gets worse and more violent.

Then law enforcement comes in, whose expectation is to control or at least contain crime in the midst of those hopeless circumstances. Then add racial bias, both explicit and implicit, in police forces around the country (as documented in Department of Justice reports on Ferguson, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and elsewhere), and you have recurring incidents, lethal consequences, protests, and "riots," one after another.

This is a very combustible combination of social failures that we are all responsible for.

That's the pattern, and that's the lesson. 

The undeniable fact that the neighborhoods that are left out of jobs, education, and family in our society are overwhelmingly black and brown is a testament to America's lingering "original sin" of racism. That is exactly what young people who explode in those neighborhoods feel: They feel left out, and then they participate in self-destructive and community-destructive behavior that is clearly wrong and counterproductive and even distracting from the real issues of racial policing. So if we just focus on the "riots," or even just on policing behavior, we will not be addressing the root causes of these problems.

This is the parable of Baltimore, one that we need to learn from if our responses are ever to be as deep as the problems are.

And admitting that the things we accept and don't accept have to do with race is a first honest step.

President Obama's words about Baltimore were some of the most honest of his presidency:

In those environments, if we think that we're just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without, as a nation and as a society, saying, "What can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity?" then we're not going to solve this problem. And 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.


I think we, as a country, have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It's been going on for decades.

And without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities, what we also know is that if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty, they've got parents — often because of substance-abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves —[who] can't do right by their kids....

[I]f we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It's just it would require everybody saying, "This is important; this is significant," and that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. We're paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids, and we think they're important. And they shouldn't be living in poverty and violence.   

In a joint press conference with the prime minister of Japan, the president went off script, spoke from his heart, and turned the presidential rostrum into a presidential pulpit. He told the truth about lessons of the Baltimore parable that we all need to learn — if we are at all serious about solving these problems.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter@JimWallis.

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