Why We Can’t Have Serious Conversations About Situations Like Baltimore

http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/wp-content/uploads/Slums-of-Baltimore.jpg
http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/wp-content/uploads/Slums-of-Baltimore.jpg
deltaskymag.delta.com
deltaskymag.delta.com

These two pictures illustrate a couple of the answers to my title question.  In searching for a picture to accompany this post, I went to Google Images and simply typed in “Baltimore”. The first 57 pictures were images like the bottom one — the skyline and the inner harbor. Only then did I get to the picture on top. Not only are these two images of Baltimore both accurate, but it is essential to understand how the two images are related.

The title of this post comes from a series of things I posted on Facebook earlier this week. Far too many stories came across my social media feed which seemed to inhibit dialogue rather than invite it. This morning I receive a message from a Spring Arbor graduate who is interning with IJM in Asia and had been in my race and ethnic class. Watching all of this from afar, she wrote:

I’ve been recently becoming more and more frustrated by humanity’s apparent inability to have conversations about things like this. People seem to prefer choosing sides and having a screaming match instead of trying to come to a reasonable conclusion. Judging from your Facebook posts (and your class discussions) this is something that frustrates you as well.

Here are my answers to her very good question.

1. We Don’t Know How to Think about Structural Inequality

As I’ve written, last month I finished The Long Shadow, a book by Johns Hopkins sociologists examining two decades of life in Baltimore. It reports on a panel study that followed children starting public school through age 28. I shared their findings in our social stratification class yesterday (I summarized their mobility data in the post last month.) I gave the students this chart.

Long Shadow

I wrote in that other post that this is a Chi-Square test.For those who don’t know Chi-Square, it’s a test of independence. The “expected count” shows what you’d have if there was no relationship between the variables. While we can never “prove” a relationship, we wind up determining that the relationship is statistically significant (meaning the odds of this being a chance pattern are very small).There are four degrees of freedom in a three by three table and the Chi-Square value for a 1% chance of error is 13.27. For yesterday’s class I tested the probability of finding this result. The Chi-Square value for the table above came in at 126. When I plugged that figure into a Chi-Square calculator, I learned that the odds of finding this pattern rests at 1 out of 100,000.

What this chart tells us, as does Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, is that there is much more to intergenerational inheritance than we’ve been willing to admit. Advantage begets advantage. Disadvantage limits mobility. Of course it is true that individuals can rise about their circumstances through discipline and hard work. It is true that children of advantage can lose ground. But as the chart shows, these are the anomaly not the general pattern. Without something shifting trajectory, the likely outcome is class replacement.

Our focus on mobility and the American Dream blinds us to this basic sociological reality. To admit that some people seem trapped by their circumstances somehow runs the risk of determinism. So we try to generalize from the exception rather than looking at the common patterns.

2. We fail to understand the implications of past public policy decisions

As tempting as it is for some critics to simply blame Baltimore Uprising on partisan politics or racial insensitivity, the actual picture is more complicated. Emily Badger wrote a fascinating account in Wednesday’s Washington Post detailing the public policy history of Baltimore. It’s a harsh history. This passage summarizes things very well.

And the really terrible irony — which brings us back to Baltimore today — is that each of these shocks further diminished the capacity of low-income urban black communities to recover from the one that came next. It’s an irony, a fundamental urban inequality, created over the years by active decisions and government policies that have undermined the same people and sapped them of their ability to rebuild, that have again and again dismantled the same communities, each time making them socially, economically, and politically weaker.

Suburbanization led to White Flight. White Flight led to a declining city tax base. Urban redevelopment displaced powerless populations so that we could gentrify the neighborhoods to revitalize the downtown. Rundown areas became havens for crime. Crime-ridden neighborhoods required a regular police presence. Those who could flee the inner city did, leaving behind those with few other options.

I’d like to believe that these were all unintended consequences of misguided public policy. But I fear that there were those who manipulated these policies as economic incentives. Those who targeted West Baltimore for subprime mortgages didn’t do that by accident.

I could write an entire post on the ways in which our short-sighted policy decisions have contributed to the realities we face today. But until we recognize that this isn’t about welfare dependency or drug trafficking but is about a national policy that favored economic interests and upper-middle class enclaves, we can’t have a real conversation about why there are two Baltimores.

3. We are unable to take the role of the other

It’s easy to blame this on the media — they make it so easy. Jon Stewart did a great video montage this week of Wolf Blitzer claiming that he “couldn’t believe these things happen in America”. First, Wolf needs to get out more and talk way less. But more importantly, it reflected a blindness to the ongoing situations on the ground. Many people rightly observe that media coverage of the Baltimore protests was minimal and sporadic until the CVS store was burned. Suddenly, we denounce the looters and decry the sad state of our culture.

Two things needs to be said. First, I heard a long-term law enforcement officer on NPR this week (I can’t find the link) comment that Monday’s riot was nothing compared to what happened to Baltimore in 1968. Today we have 24 hour news channels and roving reporters demanding to know why rioting is happening. Second, the media coverage follows a pattern of finding the most egregious example and using that as the key talking point.

This story by Lonnae O’Neal does an excellent job of trying to walk in the shoes of those who actually experience West Baltimore. Perhaps if we had more sociological imagination we could begin to know what that’s like.

In a strange way, comments by law enforcement officials following the indictment of the six officers for the death of Freddie Gray provide a starting point for empathy. NPR had a story yesterday about fears those in law enforcement that included the following:

“The specter of criminal charges being filed against police officers I believe is going to send reverberations across the nation,” says Sue Rahr, a former sheriff who now runs the police academy in Washington state.

Rahr is reform-minded, having served on President Obama’s task force on 21st Century Policing. But she’s also worried that public opinion is becoming too slanted against police.

“What gets played in the media is the most extreme cases — the cases that represent an anomaly,” she says. “Because those are played over and over again, people get the perception that that’s happening all the time and that’s the norm.”

It almost sounds like she’s concerned that police would be blindly assumed of wrongdoing. What would be next? Randomly stopping innocent police officers and demanding that they explain their presence in the neighborhood? That they could be harassed just because of their physical appearance?

Yet that kind of cross-over of viewpoint is necessary if we are to break out of our echo chambers. Otherwise, we keep talking to people who already agree with us about how bad THEY are.

4. We won’t abandon chicken-and-egg issues about culture and structure

It’s amazing how much is written about issues of culture versus issues of structural inequality. Yesterday, David Brooks wrote an essay about The Nature of Poverty. He says that we have spent great sums of money on programs and yet don’t seem to make a difference (to his credit, he doesn’t begrudge those attempts). He concludes his piece as follows:

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

As a social psychologist, this is frustrating. The relationship between belief and behavior is a reflexive phenomenon. Our beliefs influence our behaviors and our experiences modify our beliefs. As I told the stratification class yesterday, it may be that not caring in school is a remarkable rational response to lack of opportunity or the difficulty of overcoming a brush with the law.

The only viable policy response is for us to consider how to support students who care about school while simultaneously addressing issues that make it worth their while to care. It is to consider how our drug policies have impacted family dynamics while we find ways of strengthening family and extra-family bonds (and be willing to support even those that don’t involve marriage).

As long as we simply pick a side and say that nothing can happen until we resolve this issue (joblessness or criminality), nothing will happen.

5. We lack a theology that confronts inequality

I just finished an excellent little book on Wesleyan Political Theology. It is Greg Coates Master’s thesis from Duke and explores how Free Methodist founder B.T. Roberts built on John Wesley’s theology to engage political and economic conditions in 19th century America. Deeply embedded in American populism and the pursuit of the Imago Dei, Roberts worked vociferously for social change. Not as an addendum to his theological commitments but as a direct expression of them. Coates contrasts Wesley’s views of the monarchy and the government in England with Roberts’ views of economic exploitation and structural inequality in America. He concludes that Roberts grasps an underdeveloped component of Wesleyan theology; that individual AND structures are being redeemed.

Yet a Wesleyan approach to politics is rooted in the primary truth that all people are created in the image of God and that all of creation is intended to reflect the community of the holy Triune God, with whom we will one day be united after having been sanctified through the power of the Spirit. This means that first and foremost our political theology must be people-centric, not issue-centric.

Because Roberts wasn’t interested in premillennialism, he didn’t see the world as something to be abandoned. He recognized that somehow we are co-participants in God’s Kingdom and responsible to and for all those who live in it.

Maybe if we could take this last point seriously, the other issues would begin to be addressed.

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One thought on “Why We Can’t Have Serious Conversations About Situations Like Baltimore

  1. As more and more people are moving to city life, it is of paramount importance to analyze the dynamics of the inner cities. In particular the increasing disparity in income. Great blog John, thank you so much.

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