so precisely mirror each other,
generation after generation
As some 37,000 fans streamed into Camden Yards for the Orioles–Red Sox game on the last Saturday evening in April, things were getting out of hand in Baltimore. The peaceful protests of the day were spiraling into bitter confrontations. Outside the stadium and nearby, rocks were being hurled at police and through store windows. If you’d caught these fast-breaking developments online, you might have been tempted, as I was, to flip on CNN. Cable news may not have a reliable nose for news, but it can be counted on to bear witness whenever it smells blood.
I should have known better. This was the night of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C., and the network was giving it four hours of undivided attention. Government potentates, media folk, and a modest bounty of show-business celebrities were busy posing on the Washington Hilton’s red carpet on their way to the ballroom. The news happening 40 miles up the road might as well have been in Kazakhstan. CNN didn’t cut away to on-the-ground coverage or offer the obligatory split screen. There were, however, frequent glimpses of the anchor Wolf Blitzer at a prime table down front.
Yet, if you chose, as I did, to monitor these annual revels with one eye while following the Baltimore action on Twitter, you got both up-to-the-second snapshots of the latest urban battleground and a wide shot of the cultural chasm separating official Washington from modern America’s repeated eruptions of racial unrest. That chasm is nothing new. What made this particular instance poignant was the presence in the ballroom of our first African-American president, the Magic Negro who was somehow expected to relieve a nation founded and built on slavery from the toxic burdens of centuries of history.
The poor guy just can’t win. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote last year after the president responded with characteristic reserve to the clearing of Michael Brown’s killer in Ferguson, Barack Obama’s “blackness” has “granted him more knowledge of his country than he generally chooses to share.” Let him share too much of that knowledge, and he is immediately charged with playing the race card. Even a mild response to, say, the arrest of a black Harvard professor in his own Cambridge home can reignite recriminations from adversaries who stipulate that the president be color-blind (even if they are not). But Obama is a lame duck now, and at the Correspondents’ Dinner he let loose. He played straight man to the comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who arrived onstage to reprise his Comedy Central shtick as “Luther,” the “anger translator” charged with venting the outrage the constrained black president can’t express himself in public.
Performed before a sea of overwhelmingly white faces in black tie, this ventriloquistic routine almost came off as a minstrel act, a throwback to the Jim Crow era, when the very idea of a Barack Obama in the White House would have been unimaginable. Still, for all our real progress since then, the retro vibe remains apropos to our own time too. The comic premise that our first black president, six years in, must subcontract his anger to a surrogate in order to express what he really thinks is an exquisite, only slightly exaggerated distillation of his predicament, and ours. The routine gained a whole other layer of context from the anger simultaneously being vented on streets 40 miles away. Anyone watching who was old enough to have lived through the riots last time in both Baltimore and Washington had to be struck by what still hasn’t changed in the decades since. And had to wonder what, if anything, is going to change now, despite all the protestations of goodwill, bold action, and reform voiced by the nation’s political class since the killing of Freddie Gray.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, some 130 cities and towns in 36 states blew up, but none on a scale larger than my hometown of Washington and the city just north of it on I-95, where my family also had deep roots. Baltimore’s riots didn’t start until two nights after the King assassination. The nation’s capital was the trailblazer. As the bulletin spread from Memphis on April 4, I was downtown, a college freshman on spring break moonlighting in an old high-school job as a ticket taker at the National Theatre, a playhouse three blocks from the White House. The National’s booking was the road company of Cabaret, presciently enough — a musical, then new, whose account of Weimar Berlin includes a scene where a Jewish fruit peddler’s window is smashed by a rock thrown by a Nazi hooligan. When the actress playing Sally Bowles halted the curtain call to tell a nearly all-white audience of some 1,600 that King was dead and downtown Washington was unsafe, people started screaming as if rocks were being hurled at them. Outside you could smell smoke. Tanks were already blocking Pennsylvania Avenue as I scrambled to get home to the safer Northwest neighborhood of Cleveland Park.
Like the fruit peddler in Cabaret, my father was a Jewish merchant. Within a day, the 50-foot glass storefront of Rich’s Shoes, on F Street between 13th and 14th, would be shattered and the store would be looted. Dad shut down for a week to perform triage on the destroyed interior and rid the store of tear gas so thick he couldn’t enter the building. He had been the first upscale merchant downtown to promote black employees to the sales floor, but such a gesture didn’t seem to matter now. Quite the contrary. Dad took note that few other businesses on his block, including a jewelry store, had been damaged at all. “These guys wanted shoes,” he would say, perhaps only somewhat philosophically.
My father wasn’t completely blindsided by the riots; he’d noticed some recent incidents of arson downtown and would later recall an “overwhelming feeling of tension in the city” brought on by the reality that blacks weren’t welcome in establishments owned by some of his peers, whether restaurants, stores, or hotels. But he hadn’t remotely foreseen a conflagration of this scale and devastation.
The assumption was that Washington and Baltimore were immune to such cataclysms. While District of Columbia residents couldn’t elect their own officials — they’d only been granted the right to cast ballots in presidential elections in 1963 — they had just been given their first mayor of sorts, a “commissioner mayor,” appointed by the president. Lyndon Johnson had wisely rejected the usual white suspects favored for the job by Washington’s power brokers — the Washington Post president Katharine Graham had pushed the superlawyer Edward Bennett Williams — and turned instead to Walter Washington, the great-grandson of a slave and a Howard University–educated lawyer. Blacks were handed a majority in the District’s appointed City Council as well. They were numerous enough in the federal workforce that in 1968 the capital could claim more black professionals per capita than any other city in the country.
Baltimore’s own presumed inoculation against Armageddon was embodied by its young, recently elected mayor, Thomas L.J. D’Alesandro III, a Democrat in the FDR-JFK mold (and, as it happened, the older brother of the Democratic leader-to-be Nancy Pelosi); his predecessor, the Republican Theodore McKeldin, had also been a progressive popular with black voters. The city had the second-largest chapter of the NAACP (behind New York). In February 1968, the Baltimore Sun published an article, soon reprinted in Reader’s Digest, explaining why Baltimore had miraculously escaped the riots that had ravaged Newark and Detroit (along with Tampa, Atlanta, and Cincinnati, among others) during the long, hot summer of 1967. The answer? A new police commissioner had sent a signal that “someone in authority cares” by installing a black deputy to run an expanded, proactive community-relations department. “When the man wearing a police uniform is not automatically hated, then there is progress, there is hope,” the article concluded. “In Baltimore there is hope.” It was also in February 1968 that the much-awaited report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — the so-called Kerner Commission, appointed by LBJ after the 1967 riots — singled out Baltimore for rare optimism on the same grounds. In April, that hope was incinerated by an insurrection that spawned a thousand fires, left six dead, and required nearly 11,000 troops to suppress.
In the aftermath, both cities’ old downtown commercial districts became ghost towns. (Baltimore’s still is.) Washington’s had started to fade well before 1968, the white exodus picking up steam after 1960, when the Census officially certified that the nation’s capital was also the nation’s first major black-majority city. After the riots, however, my father did something unexpected — and somewhat anomalous for a white small-businessman in a gutted American urban business district of that time. He shifted his anger from those who plundered his store to some of his fellow store owners who were either abandoning the city or insisting on more police as a cure-all. He soon beat a path to Walter Washington and before long was entwined with the city’s fledgling black leadership on a second career as a civic activist that would outlast our family’s century-old business (which he shut in 1987) by more than two decades.
It was not a path that anyone might have predicted for him. Dad was a classic Rotarian and no rebel. He had been raised, as I was to an extent, by a black maid, a little-questioned status quo. His only detours from his father’s and grandfather’s business had been to serve in the Pacific theater during the war and to re-up for a Pentagon desk job during Korea. As a fourth-generation native Washingtonian who never left, he couldn’t consider politics as an avocation even if he wanted to in a city that had no self-government or local elections of any kind.
My father’s post-riot agenda included promoting job-training initiatives and youth programs, as well as arguing for drug rehabilitation and decriminalization. He became chairman of the local Urban Coalition after at least 15 others turned the post down. But his obsession became the city’s lack of home rule. The prohibition of democracy in our democratic nation’s capital, a lifelong irritant, started to loom in his thinking as a fundamental injustice that poisoned everything else. He saw close-up that even with its new nominal “mayor,” the capital was run like a plantation by the racist Southerners (then Democrats) in charge of the House committee for District affairs. The chairman in 1968 was John McMillan of South Carolina, who starved the city’s public schools (visible even in the fiscally favored white-neighborhood public schools my siblings and I attended) and filled the District Building’s impotent bureaucracy with his own patronage appointments. When Walter Washington sent McMillan his first mayoral budget for approval, the congressman responded by sending back a truckload of watermelons. As Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood would write nearly three decades later in Dream City, their definitive book about the first Marion Barry era, “white lawmakers in Congress telling black people in the city how to live their lives” was the city’s central dynamic: “No one can understand Washington without appreciating the debilitating impact of federal control that has been at various times patronizing, neglectful, and racist.”
Before the riots, few whites had looked closely at how daily civic humiliations permeated the fabric of a city still segregated in everything but name. In Ten Blocks From the White House, a Washington Post volume published afterward, Ben W. Gilbert reconstructed the complacent pre-riot thinking. Washington would surely not be another Los Angeles, Newark, or Detroit, he wrote, because “many blacks had secure, well-paying government jobs, with pensions at retirement.” They wouldn’t riot, because “they had a real stake in the city,” and “to protect this stake, they would discourage others from misbehaving.” No doubt this is the kind of nonsense plantation owners told themselves on the eve of the Civil War.
A parallel myopia had lulled progressive Baltimore into its own complacency. Forgotten in the 1968 pre-riot happy talk about the city’s embryonic efforts at community policing was a historical legacy that continued to define its racial divisions and economic inequities (and still does): In 1910, Baltimore had become the first American city to delineate the geographical boundaries of black and white neighborhoods, literally block by block, in a residential-segregation law. (The ordinance became the model for southern cities like Atlanta.) This strain of DNA in Baltimore’s history, like the crippling impact of Washington’s sub-democratic status, was of a piece with ingrained injustices in other riot-prone American cities. “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” said the Kerner Commission in 1968. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The warning went unheeded. So did King’s own warning to Baltimore, delivered in person in a 1966 speech, that “thousands of work-starved men walk the streets every day in search for jobs that do not exist.” Only after the cities imploded would there be a reckoning — on paper, anyway. A report commissioned by the Quakers’ American Friends Committee on the 1968 Baltimore riots found that the black population was largely confined to decrepit neighborhoods where housing ordinances went unenforced, schools were inferior, police harassment was prolific, and jobs had vanished. Even the peaceable Quakers had to conclude that “when one accumulates a list of the complaints of Baltimoreans, one tends to wonder why the retaliation was not worse.”
None of these conditions, or the anger they engendered, should have been news to white Americans, let alone the nation’s political leadership, in 1968, or 1967, or 1965, when the Watts riot in Los Angeles prefigured the rapid-fire explosions about to come. Race riots had long been a fixture in post-Reconstruction America. In the “Red Summer” of 1919, they broke out in 25 cities and towns, mainly fomented by white mobs carrying out lynchings and pogroms. Washington’s lasted four days and produced some 40 casualties.
It was in 1935 in Harlem that the current template for modern urban riots was set — “a new disorder, in which abject living conditions, police action, and rumor ignited large-scale violence among blacks who believed themselves without effective means of redress,” as the Encyclopedia of American Race Riots codifies it. The 1935 Harlem riot was set off by the rumor that a policeman had killed a shoplifter, prompting black Harlemites to turn on the handiest symbols of white power, police officers and white-owned businesses. The post-King assassination riots excepted, most every major urban riot since then has been a variation on the same theme. “This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new,” Obama said after the Baltimore riots, speaking of the recurrent conflicts between police and poor black communities. Yet even now, 80 years after that Harlem precursor, we profess to be shocked all over again when this history so regularly repeats itself.
Truly, the Kerner Commission report could be republished in 2015 with scant updating. On page 8 of the best-selling paperback edition (my copy is the 18th printing in 1968 alone) are stark bullet points enumerating the top-three causes of the 1967 riots that left 43 dead in Detroit and 26 dead in Newark:
1. POLICE PRACTICES
2. UNEMPLOYMENT AND UNDEREMPLOYMENT
3. INADEQUATE HOUSING
Racism (euphemistically defined as “disrespectful white attitudes”) lagged behind, at No. 7, on this list. Imagine if America had mobilized to focus seriously on items one to three back then — all of them more tangible and potentially more malleable than stamping out bigotry — instead of letting them fester.
The Kerner report could not have been more explicit in elaborating on the No. 1 grievance: “a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection — one for Negroes and one for whites.” But we see what we want to see, which is why, almost 50 years later, so few (myself included) were aware of the Baltimore Sun investigation of 2014 telling much the same story: About $5.7 million had been paid out by the city to settle more than 100 allegations of police brutality and civil-rights violations over four years.
In the aftermath of the Baltimore riots of 2015, few questions are more haunting than those posed plaintively by the congressman Elijah Cummings at Freddie Gray’s funeral. Noting the profusion of cameras in the media circus at the New Shiloh Baptist Church, Cummings asked: “Did anyone recognize Freddie when he was alive? Did you see him?”
Even after Gray was dead, many who should know better, including some who are paid to be informed, were ignorant of the history that presaged his death and fed the rampage that followed. Jon Stewart was right when he singled out Wolf Blitzer for scorn: No mainstream-media star’s behavior better exemplifies the mass amnesia that helps perpetuate our racial Groundhog Day. When he returned to anchoring once Washington’s prom weekend was over, Blitzer repeatedly demonstrated that he was as clueless about events in America’s recent, post–Travyon Martin past as he was of the long history preceding it. “Hard to believe this is going on in a major American city right now!” he exclaimed incredulously. “This is a scene that a lot of us never anticipated seeing in a city like Baltimore!” His use of the word “us” in that sentence — whether meant to stand for whites in his audience or the Washington media-political Establishment, of which he has long been an archetypal pillar — is one of the most revealing words said by anyone in hours of riot coverage, whether on CNN or elsewhere.
Much of that coverage mindlessly pounded in the one unassailable sentiment shared across the political and racial spectrum: Nonviolent protest is positive, and rioting is both self-destructive and a crime that must be punished. The other consensus, among whites anyway, was that Toya Graham, the Baltimore mother caught on-camera slapping her errant hoodie-wearing 16-year-old son, was a beacon of hope, if not a panacea for all ghetto ills. Graham made the admiring rounds of The View, Anderson Cooper, and Charlie Rose. Jeb Bush declared that she had “a lot in common” with his own mother and commended the video as “a nice visual symbol for what needs to be restored.” Finally, a black historian, Stacey Patton, had had enough and raised the obvious question in a powerful essay in the Washington Post titled “Why Are We Celebrating the Beating of a Black Child?” Patton sympathized with Graham — what parent wouldn’t? — but then gave Graham’s white fan club some needed schooling on the history of “the public humiliation of black children” and the impotence of parental thrashings in keeping “black children safe from police, out of prisons, morgues and graves.”
As the slapping video got old, the usual sterile conservative-liberal debate reasserted itself. Those on the right blamed Baltimore’s black mayor, black police chief, and Great Society policies for the riots and argued that the fact of Baltimore’s black leadership in itself canceled out any racial component in the unrest. This ahistorical judgment glides over the reality, as Emily Badger wrote in the Post, that “several minority elected officials” cannot “be a corrective to decades” of government-sponsored policies, from Robert Moses–style “urban renewal” to discriminatory mortgage practices, that perpetuated poverty, blighted neighborhoods and families, thwarted homeownership, and fostered a cornucopia of inequality, from financial to environmental. (Not for nothing was Gray poisoned by lead paint well before he was thrown into that police van.) The notion that black leadership from the White House on down, however strong, can ipso facto clean up the mess that white people compounded over centuries and usher the country into some postracial nirvana is absurd. Those who profess to believe it are looking for an excuse to absolve themselves of responsibility and do nothing.
And what new did liberals have to offer? You’d think after the embarrassing Starbucks fiasco, in which the CEO Howard Schultz encouraged baristas to write RACE TOGETHER on latte cups “to facilitate a conversation” between them and their customers, that people would stop demanding more national conversations about race. They did not. Nicholas Kristof rebooted his call for a South African–style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for which he has cited the Kerner Commission as a homegrown antecedent. But if few heeded the first Kerner Commission, why would anyone believe that a retread would have any effect? As the writer John McWhorter observed last year — rattling off a litany including Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling, 12 Years a Slave, et al. — Americans seem to be talking about little but race.
What’s needed, of course, is action, not more blather, and there is some agreement among politicians (and increasingly the public) about what form at least some of it might take. Police body cameras would seem to be a done deal, given that nearly 90 percent of the public approves of them. Hillary Clinton, though also asking for a “broader” conversation, has stopped defending the discredited anti-crime regimens once championed by her husband and the former Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley. She is calling for an end to “the era of mass incarceration” and has found such unlikely allies as Ted Cruz. But with the national crime rate at its lowest in four decades, criminal-justice reform and the cessation of the disastrous drug war are the low-hanging policy fruit and the minimum our politicians can do.
Addressing the inequality and pathologies produced by unyielding urban poverty is a more vexing matter. The current administration’s plans were more ambitious than most, but the headwinds of inadequate congressional funding and sclerotic federal bureaucracy took their toll. The notion that public-private partnerships can step up on a significant scale to compensate for that shortfall is an exercise in denial: The president’s much-lauded initiative for at-risk youth, My Brother’s Keeper, has raised a drop-in-the-bucket $500 million in donations in 15 months.
The country can’t afford inertia. It’s a tinderbox awaiting the next spark. One could arrive in January 2017 should all three branches of Washington’s federal government end up in control of a political party so alienated from black Americans that it hasn’t drawn more than 11 percent of the African-American vote since 1996 and was down to 6 percent in the 2012 presidential race. This is the opposite of progress. Back in 1967, after Detroit cratered in despair and violence, the Republican governor of Michigan, George Romney, launched his presidential campaign with a tour of America’s troubled urban areas beyond his own state. “I think it’s important,” he said, for public officials to see “the horrible conditions which breed frustration, hatred, and revolt.” He went so far as to meet with Marion Barry, then a young civil-rights worker, in Washington, and the community organizer Saul Alinsky in Rochester, New York. By contrast, the only one among the horde of current Republican presidential contenders to feign interest in black America, Rand Paul, revealed his hollow cynicism when, at the height of the unrest, he joked with the radio host Laura Ingraham that he was glad his train didn’t stop in Baltimore. The story of the GOP’s current self-imposed apartheid is one that will not end well.
There is much else to be anxious about. The young Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby, who raised the expectations of many seeking justice by indicting six officers in Gray’s death, could crush those hopes if she fails to obtain convictions. In the summer of 2016, both parties will hold conventions in cities with large poor black populations whose police forces have been the subject of damning Department of Justice investigations like the one now beginning in Baltimore: The Republicans will party in Cleveland, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot while carrying a toy gun, and the Democrats in Philadelphia, where 26-year-old Brandon Tate-Brown met the same fate after committing the offense of driving without turning on his headlights. No one was charged in Tate-Brown’s death; the Rice investigation has been in slo-mo. The fact that both cities have black police chiefs means no more than it did in Baltimore. But let’s worry about 2016 later; Americans are fatalistic about the long hot months immediately at hand. After the Baltimore riots, a Wall Street Journal–NBC News poll found that in a country where no one agrees about anything, an extraordinary 96 percent of adults surveyed “said it was likely there would be additional racial disturbances this summer.”
In light of the current tumult, I couldn’t help but reflect on my father, who died in January, at 93, still at home in Northwest. His last job, which he undertook at age 78 and kept at until his late 80s, was as a volunteer archivist at DC Vote, an organization dedicated to achieving full home rule. As always, he gave it his all. He was appreciative of the many changes in his city over the years, some of which he had contributed to, but D.C.’s unfinished business weighed on him. Washington remains a ward of the federal government with no voting representation in either the House or the Senate. The percentage of families living below the poverty level in the District’s Ward 8 — a third — is the same as West Baltimore’s, and even more hidden away from the capital’s glossier quarters than Freddie Gray’s neighborhood is from the sprawling precincts of Johns Hopkins.
“If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could,” President Obama said after Baltimore boiled over. “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.” Obama wasn’t being angry, heaven forbid — just honest. But if a black president isn’t allowed to get angry about our society’s perennial failure to solve the problem, white people in Washington have no such constraints. If ever there was a time for those in power to stop fiddling on red carpets while America burns, surely it is now.
*This article appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.