A week after the tragedy in Baltimore, many are trying to spin the events as a feel-good story. From the story about a Black mother grabbing her teenage son and pulling him out of the street, hitting him “upside the head” in traditional fashion, to the move by the state’s attorney to bring charges against several police officers for the killing of Freddie Gray, there are those who want to assure the public that what has happened in Charm City is “not about race”.
Wrong. It is all about race.
We are assured that Baltimore is different, because Baltimore has a Black mayor and a Black police chief and many Black police officers. It also has an African-American CEO of the school district, whose previous position was as superintendent in Milwaukee. Yeah, Milwaukee.
But W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out long ago that there can be Black officials and yet persistent institutional racism. The presence of Black leaders doesn’t even ensure good leadership that supports brighter futures for Black children and communities. Baltimore is a good enough illustration of this.
Maryland incarcerates 310 per 100,000 White residents of the state and four times that, 1,437 per 100,000 Black residents of the state. This is not unusual. It is worse in Milwaukee. As a matter of fact, it is business as usual in America: the mass incarceration of African-Americans, specifically young Black men, as a way of enforcing caste boundaries, impoverishing their families. The drug laws are useful for this purpose, but so are traffic laws. Both can result in summonses and then often enough bench warrants, which are particularly useful in perpetuating cycles of debt peonage. Summoned to appear in court for these sometimes minor violations, a man who believes that he will be fined more than he can afford, does not appear. Not appearing in court, a warrant is issued, at which point, for lack of the price of the judge’s dinner, he becomes an outlaw, as Alice Goffman has shown in On the Run, her book about such matters.
There are armored cars on the streets in Baltimore, another American city under military occupation. The officer in charge of the Maryland National Guard’s army units was a company commander in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) during Operation Desert Storm and also served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, just to be clear.
But the yellow brick road out of poverty onto the sunny uplands of post-racial America runs through the schools, doesn’t it? What happens to Black children in Baltimore’s schools?
Just 13 percent of Baltimore’s Black eighth-graders read at or above grade level in reading. Just eight percent of eighth grade Black boys in the city read at or above grade level. Just seven percent of those young Black men in eighth grade eligible for National Lunch Programs in the city can read at grade level.
Maryland certainly likes to perpetuate the myth that its schools are high quality. But it does have an exemplary accounting system for its schools. It tells us that statewide, only 16 percent of classes in high poverty high schools are not taught by highly qualified teachers; in Baltimore it is 22 percent. What is more, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 35 percent of Baltimore teachers are absent more than ten days of the school year, an extraordinary and unacceptable level of teacher absenteeism.
The result of the failure of the Baltimore schools is a four-year cohort graduation rate for Black students in Baltimore of 70 percent, that is, a dropout rate of 30 percent. Half of those graduating go to college. Just half of those who go to college are still there after the first year
Twice as many Black residents of Baltimore over the age of 25 have not graduated from high school as the average for Black residents of the state as a whole. Half as many have graduated from college. Eleven percent of Black men in Baltimore have graduated from college, as compared to 48 percent of White men in the city.
Ninety-three percent of poor male Black eighth-graders in Baltimore cannot read well enough to read Dropout Nation or the stories in The New York Times about the Black mother grabbing her teenage son and pulling him out of the street, hitting him “upside the head” in traditional fashion; people from the damaged neighborhoods and others from outside picking up trash, sweeping up broken glass; interviewees assuring commentators that “this is not about race.”
The interactions of the criminal justice and education systems work very well to police the boundaries of caste, to teach Black Americans, if not to read, to understand their place in these post-racial United States. Just look at Baltimore, or Ferguson, or Chicago, or New York. Or Milwaukee.