Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Quit being a thug and get a job! Really?

Editor's note: This is the unedited version of an article written for the website, What Is Matt Walsh Wrong About Today, a site dedicated to debunking our local hero's gobblydegook.

While he was in Utah for a “Stand For Marriage Rally”, Matt hastily wrote his views on the riots in Baltimore.  Just like he did in another article five months ago, Matt accuses the black community of holding up violent criminals as heroes, lacking ambition to work, turning to crime, and not being involved in their own community.

What Matt got right

He is angry.

What Matt got wrong

Matt’s patronizing message, scarcely hidden beneath all his anger and vitriol, is that everyone in the Black community needs to quit being thugs, get a job, and care about their community.

Almost twenty years ago I moved to Baltimore for work.  At the time Matt, also a Baltimore resident, was ten-years-old. Like many other suburban white kids, Matt was probably attending a well-funded grade school.  He probably sat in class daydreaming about things grade-schoolers daydream about, like being a fireman, astronaut, or superhero.  Freddie Gray was three years younger than Matt, but like many other poor black kids, he was probably attending a poorly-funded inner-city school.  Like Matt, Freddie most likely sat in class daydreaming about being a fireman, astronaut, or superhero.  Unlike Matt, Freddie faced a variety of extra challenges Matt didn't have to face in ever reaching those goals.  The 2015 Baltimore Riots were already brewing as Freddie’s neighborhood sank deeper into poverty, a trend which began more than thirty years earlier as blue collar, middle class shipping and manufacturing jobs disappeared from Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Ten years ago, when I left Baltimore to return to the rural Maryland Eastern Shore where I grew up, Matt was attending broadcasting school in Baltimore.  His career choice would lead him to his first job in my hometown a hundred miles east of Baltimore a year or so later.  At the same time, Freddie Gray was finishing high school and just a year away from his first arrest.  The tragic march toward the 2015 Baltimore Riots continued.

The parallels between Matt’s experiences and Freddie’s reveal an important question, one which Matt was too busy complaining about black people to answer in his article.  What happened in that ten-year span between 1996 and 2006 that led two grade-schoolers - Matt and Freddie - on such different paths?   One had a productive (sort of) career path in broadcasting and the other went from problem to problem until his tragic death at the hands of police.  Pointing fingers and telling black people to quit being thugs and to get a job certainly doesn't come close to answering the question.

Matt does, though, bring up an example that might illuminate a possible answer.  On St. Patrick’s Day, 2012, about 500 black teens and young adults organized on social media to spend the evening at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor — the same place thousands of White people also chose to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.  Now, three years after the fact, Matt claims to be uneasy about taking his family to the Inner Harbor because of “roving gangs of black teens”.

So, what happened on that St. Patrick’s Day?  A lot of white people got scared.  As one taxi driver said: “[Baltimore and Light Street] was blocked and 35 to 40 people, young kids, were walking across.  They're looking at you, staring at you. ... You're not going to get out and chase them.”  Oooh, Black kids staring at you. Scary.

Since Matt is a white person still so scared by all those black people staring at white people in the Inner Harbor three years ago that he won’t take his family there, it comes as no surprise that Matt labeled Freddie Gray a “thug” and a “violent criminal” because of his criminal charges (fifteen for narcotics possession, two for intent to sell, and one for burglary).  Freddie’s arrest and prosecution record is, in itself, indicative of the problems black residents of Baltimore faced that white residents, like Matt, never had to consider.  Of the eighteen charges against Freddie, the burglary resulted in verdict of not guilty, one of the intent to sell charges was dropped, five of the possession charges were dropped, and another of the possession charges also resulted in a verdict of not guilty.  Just short of half of the charges against Freddie over the years were dropped or resulted in verdicts of not guilty, which helps explain the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Baltimore police's arrest tactics.

The real War Zone: Foreclosed homes as
a result of shady and discriminatory loan
practices by the major mortgage companies
Sadly, police aren’t the only problem making life difficult for kids like Freddie.  For example, black neighborhoods became ghost towns after Wells Fargo and other banks deceptively offered subprime “ghetto loans” to the “mud people” and then foreclosed on tens of thousands of them when the housing bubble burst in 2008.   Boarded up houses spread through the Black communities like a malignant cancer with over 33,000 foreclosures by Wells Fargo, alone.

Several decades of Baltimore policies has left the city segregated.  Black neighborhoods are surrounded by White neighborhoods and the whole city is surrounded by White suburbs.  Economic boon times largely passes the Black neighborhoods, as can be seen in the median income disparities (Baltimore Blacks average 42% less annual income than non-Blacks).  Economic bust times hit the Black neighborhoods particularly hard, as can be seen in the unemployment rates (generally, more than 15% to as high as more than half in Freddie Gray's neighborhood). 

When Freddie Gray was alive, he may not have been able to point out all the obstacles that were placed in his path to achieving "the American dream", but, by the time he reached high school, he probably sensed the cards were stacked against him.  In his world there weren't many jobs available; what few were available paid slightly better than poverty level wages; homes were taken to become nothing more than boarded up, empty shells; police roughed up and hauled off young Black men on trumped up charges, if any charges were filed; and White people were terrified of young, Black men - especially if they looked at them in the eye or were walking with two or more of their friends.

Final thoughts

Some time ago I read a newspaper opinion piece written by a young black man.  He described how difficult it is for people like him to succeed in the modern service and information economy.  This article was written thirty or thirty-five years ago, so I have no link to share, but one sentence he wrote all that time ago still stands out in my mind today.  As I remember it, he wrote something along the lines of this: "A young white man holding his head high and taking charge in his job is seen as a leader and will go far with the company.  A young black man holding his head high and taking charge in his job is seen as a threat.  If the young black man takes a more subdued approach to appear more amiable to his coworkers, he's seen as weak with no future as a leader.  Either way, he's not going far with the company."

Now think about all the white people who felt threatened by the “stares” of all the young black people celebrating St Patrick's Day in 2012.  Their presence in the upscale tourist part of town prompted a state legislator to call for state troopers to protect the "crown jewel of Baltimore" from the "menacing" teens.  Not much has changed in the decades since I read that young black man’s opinion piece.

Like Matt, I’m a white man and have never lived in a poor black neighborhood.  I'm sure I will always fall short of fully answering the question of why Baltimore boiled over.  I can google, and read, and tie a lot of loose ends together.  I can empathize and attempt to understand.  But I’m unlikely to completely succeed.  John Blake, though, has first hand experience to draw on, and he did a good job of explaining it:
"The older black men were gone.

I asked 28-year-old Zachary Lewis about the absence of older men. He stood by a makeshift memorial placed at the spot where Freddie Gray, the man whose death ignited the riots, was arrested. 

"This is old here," he said, pointing to himself. "There ain't no more 'Old Heads' anymore, where you been? They got big numbers or they in pine boxes." In street syntax, that meant long prison sentences or death. 

We hear about the absence of black men from families, but what happens when they disappear from an entire community? West Baltimore delivered the answer to that question this week."

Perhaps, on topics like this, Matt Walsh should do more reading and empathizing, and spend less time trying to hammer yet another nail in a struggling community's coffin.

For the TL;DR folks:

To understand why this article exists, you have to read Matt Walsh's article.  Sorry, but no way around it.  The Baltimore Riots were decades in the making.  A two or three sentence synopsis wouldn't deal the complex subject a fair hand.

For your listening pleasure:
Matt Walsh in Utah opening rally against gays with a light hearted joke about the Baltimore Riots

Posted by Five Drunk Rednecks

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