Racism and Riots
I was a junior in high school when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. My industrial arts teacher, a full bird colonel, briefly stopped by in his fatigues.
Cities, including my own Baltimore, exploded with pent-up violence. National Guard and active military just back from Vietnam patrolled the streets in armored personnel carriers. Tanks rolled down our eerily quiet lower middleclass neighborhood after the 4:00 PM curfew. Police checkpoints stopped every vehicle at intersections. A five-foot high sandbag trench was erected across 25thStreet. The parking lot of Memorial Stadium was fenced so that magistrates could set up folding tables to process the hundreds arrested for curfew violations. Most of the inner-city was on fire. The aftermath looked like areas bombed in World War II.
In classes, we debated the why’s and the now what’s. Our pacifist Anabaptist English teacher was challenged to come up with practical solutions. He started by suggesting official vehicles mounted with loudspeakers slowly patrol all the predominantly black areas  to project apologies for systemic racism. We booed and rolled our eyes. We were not an all white class, but we were mostly white. My black classmates suffered silently. Most of us were politically liberal. We protested the war in Vietnam, wore “Make Love, Not War” buttons, supported Eugene McCarthy. We were not racists. None of this was anything we needed to apologize for.
We had no real concept of a nation that was founded on land stolen from Native tribes and built its economy on the unpaid labor of people stolen from Africa. We did not understand that Jim Crow segregation, convict leasing, lynchings, and domestic terrorism thwarted post-Civil War reconstruction.
The country elected Richard Nixon. Law and order. His war on drugs ignored the drugs of choice in affluent suburbs and targeted inner cities. It was a war on African-Americans. Mass incarceration, fatherless families, and underpaid, over-worked mothers resulted in children left vulnerable to the familial support of gangs.
Schools in low-income areas were grossly underfunded. Housing was substandard. Slumlords gouged money from renters while refusing to provide healthful living conditions.
Before and after the Baltimore riots, I tutored inner-city children. One little boy had most of his outer ear missing. Rats chewed it off as he lay in his crib. The little girl I was helping with reading was developmentally delayed. A coal-fired utility plant pumped mercury into the air near her home causing intellectual impairment. Another was brain damaged because she was so hungry as a small child that she ate the lead-filled paint chippings off the windowsill.
Federally enforced redlining kept African Americans isolated in areas where rent drained their incomes, making home ownership impossible. Their children and grandchildren would have no inheritance. Federal agencies purposely designed freeways so they cut African-American neighborhoods off from employment and transportation. Black people were the last to be hired and the first to be fired.
I’ve been occasionally stopped by police officers. I have never feared for my life. Police officers have killed eighty-two African American women, men, and boys in the last six months.
Driving while black, jogging while black, walking while black, even bird-watching while black, is met with suspicion, fear, and assumed criminal activity.
African Americans and Hispanics comprise approximately 32% of the US population, but make up 56% of those in prisons. Jail populations would drop 40% if non-whites were incarcerated at the same rate as white people. Hispanics and African Americans represent 12.5% of illicit drug users, but 29% of those arrested for drug offenses and 33% of those incarcerated on drug charges.
Typically, compared to suburbanites, African Americans have less access to healthcare, live in food deserts where healthful food is unavailable, breathe air that is more polluted than average, are subjected to crowded living conditions, have fewer vocational opportunities, must make longer commutes to and from work on public transportation, have received poorer education, and are subjected to dehumanization because of the color of their skin everywhere they go.
My family was far from rich, but they were able to feed me good food, provide a home in a safe neighborhood, help me with my homework, send me to good public schools, and help me buy my first car and my first home. None of that is available to most of my African American friends. I am privileged simply because my skin in lighter.
The nation elected Barak Obama. A black president! Perhaps a post-racial society was on the horizon.
No. Backlash. Donald Trump. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” White supremacy. Thin blue line. It’s us against them. Make America white again.
Death after death.
Rejection after rejection.
Doors slammed in faces time after time.
Frustration and anger build and build. Then a cop suffocates a man in the street and all that pent-up anger explodes.
It’s not quite on the same scale yet, but today’s headlines take me back to 1968 Baltimore. So little has changed. So little progress has been made. Where is the mountain top? Where is justice? Will America ever live up to its own ideals?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 NIV)
Say their names. Black lives matter. They matter to God. They had better matter to us.
Whom am I kidding? In 1968 Baltimore, every neighborhood was segregated – there were no predominately anything neighborhoods.
https://newsone.com/playlist/black-men-boy-who-were-killed-by-police/item/80/ accessed 1 June 2020
https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/ accessed 1 June 2020