Tag Archives: Baltimore

Doubling Down On Racism

Lest you dismiss Donald Trump’s racist history as unfortunate but irrelevant to the need to highlight the damage his policies are doing to the environment, to education, to working people, etc.–allow me to highlight the most recent evidence that he intends to make 2020 a referendum on white nationalism.

As the Washington Post reported,

President Trump ranted Saturday morning on Twitter about an African American lawmaker by disparaging the Baltimore district that Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.) represents as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

As chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cummings has initiated most of the investigations into the Trump administration’s operations and policies, including recently the reports of inhumane treatment at migrant detention centers.

Trump apparently got his “information” about Cummings’ district from Fox and Friends (too bad he doesn’t pay attention to briefings from administration officials who presumably know what they are talking about, but as has been widely reported, he prefers to rely on Faux News and his “stable genius” gut.)

Trump’s attack on Cummings is reminiscent of his recent racist attacks on four minority congresswomen who he said should “go back” to the “crime infested” places they were originally from and fix them before trying to improve America. All four women are U.S. citizens, and only one was born abroad.

Trump’s language was, as usual, inflammatory, ignorant and inaccurate. (Also as usual, ungrammatical.)

 . . As proven last week during a congressional tour, the Border is clean, efficient & well run, just very crowded. Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.

Why is so much money sent to the Elijah Cummings district when it is considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States. No human being would want to live there. Where is all this money going? How much is stolen? Investigate this corrupt mess immediately!”

Trump is incapable of participating in an evidence-based discussion or policy debate. His “go to” response is always ad hominem–an attack on the person with whom he disagrees. That said, as Americans turn their attention to the 2020 election, he has ramped up his attacks on people of color.

What about his contention that “no human” would want to live in Cummings’ district?

Baltimore is the third most dangerous city in the country behind Detroit and St. Louis, according to the FBI’s 2017 crime report. But Maryland’s 7th district, which Cummings has represented since 1996, includes about half of Baltimore city and has a median household income of around $60,000 and a higher percentage of college graduates than the country as a whole.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. Young released a statement defending both Cummings and his city, calling the president a “disappointment to the people of Baltimore, our country and to the world.”

“It’s completely unacceptable for the political leader of our country to denigrate a vibrant American City like Baltimore, and to viciously attack U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, a patriot and a hero,” he said. “Mr. Trump’s rhetoric is hurtful and dangerous to the people he’s sworn to represent.”

Trump’s language in the tweet was instructive: CNN’s Victor Blackwell pointed out that Trump has often used the word “infested” to refer to places where black and brown people live. (It was also a word Hitler routinely used about Jews.)

Perhaps the best response to this profoundly unPresidential exhibit was an editorial in the Baltimore Sun. It’s uniformly great, but my favorite paragraph is the last one:

Finally, while we would not sink to name-calling in the Trumpian manner — or ruefully point out that he failed to spell the congressman’s name correctly (it’s Cummings, not Cumming) — we would tell the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are “good people” among murderous neo-Nazis that he’s still not fooling most Americans into believing he’s even slightly competent in his current post. Or that he possesses a scintilla of integrity. Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one.

Or as Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who served in the House alongside Cummings for many years, put it:

“Elijah Cummings grew up facing racist bullies like Trump and learned to confront them with qualities unknown to Trump: courage and integrity,” Van Hollen wrote. “The great people of Baltimore have something Trump craves but will never have as he degrades the Office of the President: dignity.”

We’re going to hear more from the racist incompetent as November of 2020 approaches, and–like these recent examples–it won’t be the usual GOP dog whistles. Trump wants 2020 to be a referendum on white nationalism because he thinks most Americans are racists who agree with him that a “great” America is a White America.

Pick your torch, and prove him wrong.

Breach of (Social) Contract

Thanks to ubiquitous smart-phone cameras, social media and Black Lives Matter, the general public can no longer ignore accusations that officers in a number of police departments routinely use excessive force and engage in unconstitutional behaviors.  Investigations by the U.S. Justice Department—most recently in Baltimore— confirm persistent, systemic practices that violate the rights of the citizens we expect police to serve and protect.

For a year following the death of Freddy Gray, the Justice Department monitored the Baltimore police department. The results of that investigation were unambiguous: unconstitutional practices included disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans, and excessive use of force against juveniles and people with mental health disabilities. The report attributed these practices to “systemic deficiencies” in training, policies, and accountability structures that “fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively.”

A DOJ investigation of police in Ferguson, Missouri, reached a similar conclusion, finding a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against African-Americans that targeted them disproportionately for traffic stops, use of force, and jail sentences.

Baltimore and Ferguson are hardly unique.

As a practical matter, widespread distrust makes policing infinitely more difficult. Good policing depends upon access to reliable information and co-operation with community leaders; avenues of communication dry up when police are seen as enemies rather than protectors.

Far more troubling than the practical consequences of unprofessional behavior, however, is the damage done to America’s social fabric by what can only be seen as a breach of our most fundamental social contract.

The Enlightenment philosophers who influenced America’s founders proposed a trade of sorts; we call that trade the “social contract.” Citizens would give government the exclusive right to exercise coercive force; in return, government would use that force to protect individual rights—to provide for a society of “ordered liberty,” within which the strong could not prey with impunity on the weak.

We Americans argue constantly about the proper role of government, but there is no serious debate about the state’s obligation to provide for the public safety, or about the right of all citizens to expect equal justice before the law.

When government fails to keep its part of that essential bargain, when it breaches the social contract, it damages the bonds of citizenship and undermines the rule of law.

An old lawyer once told me that there is only one legal question: what should we do? How can our dysfunctional police departments go about changing entrenched, perverse cultures? A few suggestions, drawn from the research literature:

  • Training is key—and currently very uneven. A number of police departments across the country have instituted effective training programs that help individual officers understand implicit bias, calibrate their responses to the magnitude of the threats encountered, and learn techniques that calm, rather than exacerbate, confrontations. Those programs need to be replicated everywhere, but especially in troubled departments.
  • Policies governing police activities need to be clear, effectively communicated to the rank and file, and fairly and strictly enforced. Those policies should also be vetted by lawyers familiar with the Constitution and especially the jurisprudence of the First and Fourth Amendments.
  • Collection of accurate, relevant data is critical. Data is the means by which we measure progress, the standard against which we determine the appropriateness of behavior. It allows self-evaluation, and its public availability also allows other stakeholders to hold police accountable. That data should allow the department to identify problematic officers and intervene before they cross a serious line.
  • Every police department should have a transparent complaint process accessible to citizens, and complaints against police officers should not be evaluated solely by their peers. (In Baltimore, this was evidently a source of considerable—and understandable—distrust.) Complaints should be reviewed by disinterested parties, and policies prohibiting retaliation for filing a complaint should be strictly enforced.

In the long term, departments should focus more attention on the way they recruit and select new police officers. The recruiting process should include psychological examinations to weed out men and women who are likely to abuse authority, or who are otherwise unsuited to the stresses of the profession. And it should go without saying—so I’ll say it—departments should aim for recruits who are representative of the populations they will serve. That sounds easier than it is, but the results are worth the effort.

If Americans still believe in e pluribus unum—if we still want to unite, rather than divide, our many communities—fixing our policing problem is an essential first step.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Urban” Family Dysfunction and Red Christian America

In the wake of the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, there has been a lot more finger-pointing than sound analysis, with progressives accusing police of systemic disregard for the lives of black citizens and conservatives blaming “urban” (aka black) family dysfunction for a culture of lawlessness to which police justifiably respond. (If people don’t break the law, the meme goes, they have nothing to fear from the police.)

As with all gross generalizations, both of these broad-brush descriptions are wrong. Worse, to the extent they become common wisdom, they get in the way of our ability to solve real problems.

Are some police officers racists? Sure. But most aren’t–most are trying to do difficult jobs in situations that are often dangerous. That said, many more–especially but not exclusively in smaller communities– have been inadequately trained or badly managed, and those are issues that we can and should address.

The stereotype about black families has long been a staple of apologists for official misbehavior. It undoubtedly fits some urban families. But ironically, recent research suggests that the stereotype is much more likely to  apply to white families in deep-red, rural America. As Thomas Edsall recently reported

In the fall of 1969, Merle Haggard topped the Billboard country charts for four weeks with “Okie from Muskogee,” the song that quickly became the anthem of red America, even before we called it that.

“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee, we don’t take our trips on LSD, we don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street, we like livin’ right and bein’ free,” Haggard declared. “We don’t make a party out of lovin’, we like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo.”

Times have changed.

Today Muskogee, Okla., a city of 38,863, has nine drug treatment centers and a court specifically devoted to drug offenders. A search for “methamphetamine arrest” on the website of the Muskogee Phoenix, the local newspaper, produces 316 hits.

In 2013 just under two-thirds of the births in the city of Muskogee, 62.6 percent, were to unwed mothers, including 48.3 percent of the births to white mothers. The teenage birthrate in Oklahoma was 47.3 per 1,000; in Muskogee, it’s 59.2, almost twice the national rate, which is 29.7.

Maps of social dysfunction–out-of-wedlock births, drug use, domestic violence, divorce, etc.–show these behaviors largely concentrated in Southern, bible-belt states. Similarly, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control soundly rebutted the widely-held stereotype of the absent black father; the CDC found that black dads are, if anything, more likely to be involved with their children than fathers in other racial categories.

The problem with stereotypes–of police, of urban dwellers, of racial groups–is that they prevent us from seeing individuals and situations as they are. Pat answers and dismissive characterizations don’t solve problems–they perpetuate them.

Update: If you are interested in getting the most from data from the Census website, this guide may help.