The protests in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray call to mind uprisings of the 1960s, reminding us that the problems driving people to the streets today have profound historical roots. Brooke talks with Peniel Joseph, professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, about how today's Baltimore is the product of decades of flawed policy and misguided rhetoric.
Song: Auf Einer Burg: Don Byron
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BROOKE: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, Bob Garfield is away this week, I’m Brooke Gladstone. On Friday, Maryland State attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that she had probable cause to file criminal charges against 6 police officers in the death of Freddie Gray...
MOSBY: ... believed to be the result of a fatal injury that occurred when Mr. Grey was unrestrained by a seatbelt in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department wagon.
An uneasy peace has held in Baltimore since initial destruction and clashes between police officers and protesters in the wake of Gray’s death. And the President wasn’t alone in decrying the coverage for giving far more airplay to that spasm of violence than the peaceful protests that followed. Here a protester confronts Fox’s Geraldo rivera.
PROTESTER: I want you and Fox News to get out of Baltimore city because you’re not here reporting about the boarded up homes and the homeless people under MLK. You’re not reporting about the poverty levels up and down North Avenue. But you’re here for the black riots that happened.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer… scorched by Jon Stewart.
BLITZER: ...hard to believe this is going on, as I keep saying, in a major American city… I don’t remember seeing anything like this in the United States of America in a long time…
STEWART: Elvis leading a herd of Orthodox Jewish unicorns through a city street, that would be hard to believe. This [bleep] happens all the time. Ferguson was just a few months ago and you were talking about it.
It’s not just deja vu. It’s a feedback loop. And not just of last year, but of 50 years.
FARMER: When you say the young people have a sense of hopelessness, we of course do not mean that they don’t want to change things. We mean that they see no possibility of it being change in the present framework.
Thats James Farmer, co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality - CORE - on WNYC in 1964, after riots in in Harlem and Brooklyn.
FARMER::They’ve had promises before. They’ve had words before. They’ve had statements before. And nothing has happened. ...And I think the despair in Harlem is a general despair….the same despair exists in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in South Jamaica, and in the ghettos of the Bronx. More than that it exists in Rochester, in Chicago, in Los Angeles, in San Francisco.
Another part of that feedback loop... the explanations of remote, if well-intended white analysts, most famously, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who in 1965 as assistant Secretary of Labor issued a paper called “The Negro Family: a Case for National Action,” otherwise known as the Moynihan Report. Peniel Joseph is a professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University.
JOSEPH: In 65 the Moynihan report really shifted the debate to the idea that poverty and slavery had produced pathological cultural deficiencies in the African American community. that perspective was embraced by politicians because it shifted the onus away from institutions and politics and policies on to black families themselves and said that this was an individualized pathology, and there was nothing the federal government and state and local governments could do. It's Moynihan who coins the term "benign neglect", saying that the issue of negro rights has really risen as far as it can, and would benefit from a period of benign neglect.
BROOKE: Right, the programs that were offered had to do with fixing families and adjusting attitudes. An attitude adjustment was one of the recommendations of the McCohn report that was commissioned by the governor of California after the 1965 Watts riots.
JOSEPH: Yeah. The McCohn report is certainly amplifying this idea of black pathology, and it's going to be very different from the Kerner report by the national advisory commission on riots and civil disorders that Lyndon Johnson had set up in 1968. They did extensive interviews with people who had participated in riots, businesses that had suffered from riots, police. And they came away saying that institutional racism was at the root of the urban violence and the rioting and the civil disorders, and they recommended massive social justice and economic redistribution in terms of employment, in terms of healthcare, in terms of public schools. That report was really ignored and the tragedy is that by the 1970s, the United States is coming out of a period of post war prosperity from 1948 roughly to 1973. You get a period of diminished expectations. By the 1980s Ronald Reagan says that the reason why there's so much poverty in the United STates is precisely because the Great Society and these anti-poverty programs bred dependence, and we needed to actually lift people away from this dependence by cutting the welfare state.
BROOKE: We have pretty much laid the foundation for the different explanations for what happened this month in Baltimore. Which of those are you seeing reflected: the problem is the family as stated in the Moynihan report, the problem is a kind of deadening despair, discussed in the McCohn report, the problem is institutions and structures, raised in the Kerner report, and then as you say, ignored. What are we seeing in the tv coverage?
JOSEPH: I think the tv coverage has for the most part tried to blame the family and blame despair. The mainstream coverage by Fox and CNN has been reprehensible. They feign surprise that this violence happened in Baltimore even though Ferguson was the news story of 2014. they're calling young black men "thugs" - we've seen a media that is basking in white privilege.
BROOKE: Tell me about the television optics: the burning buildings on continuous loop. What do you think is the impact on viewers?
JOSEPH: Well the optics really disassociate the rage that you're seeing and the violence and the desperation from the historical context that produced it. So from the perspective of the average, white, middle American viewer who doesn't know really anything about African American history, who might have not been alive during the 1960s, doesn't remember the upheavals, it just seems like this is just wanton violence and anarchy, from young black thugs, which is what the media has described the rioters as. I think social media has had a different narrative about the way in which institutions and policies and the criminal justice system are actually what are shattering these families and really walling them off from prosperity. And not just the black lives matter movement, but facebook and instagram, and twitter, where you see Baltimore not as a city in despair, but as a city where people have been organizing for week san months, and really years.
BROOKE: And you've also described a kind of cognitive dissonance. that haunts this discussion, and maybe the coverage. On the one hand you have a narrative of racial progress, on the other a different kind of Jim Crow that removes a million and a half men from their communities.
JOSEPH: YEah absolutely. When we think about young African Americans who are poor in Baltimore, especially millennials who were born after April 29, 1992, which is the day of the Rodney King uprising in los angeles. They've been spoon fed a narrative of racial progress because of the election of Barack Obama. Also the power of entertainers like Jay Z and Beyonce, and Oprah Winfrey. Yet their own lives speak to another harsher reality. So I think that there is this cognitive dissonance between our national narrative of racial progress, a celebration of martin Luther King Jr, the celebration of Selma -- all these different commemorations, and what's going on in Baltimore and in these communities that are devastated, we are reaping a bitter harvest for policies that have really criminalized entire black populations in cities like Baltimore.
BROOKE: Law enforcement really is the tip of the spear, isn't it? Because most of the time these communities are pretty isolated, but the police kind of represent the face of the nation entering their streets.
JOSEPH: Absolutely. The criminal justice system and really the police are the way in which this JOSEPH: gateway of racial oppression enveloped these communities. Young people in poor black neighborhoods are excessively in force: so of course they have long arrest records, whether they're guilty or innocent. What we don't all understand is that this is not an individual choice, because there is a nationwide dragnet in these poor impoverished african american neighborhoods where the criminal justice system is doing everything in its power to put these kids in its grasp, even as young as 10 and 11 years old. The interesting thing is that because they have these long arrest records, if then they are in some melee with the police, if they are shot, the police, the mayors, the media look at that long arrest record and say, well, this kid was a bad kid, he should have been punished, he deserved whatever fate he got.
BROOKE: Do you think we're in a feedback loop?
JOSEPH: Yes, this is a reprisal in a way of what happened in the 1960s, but we live in 2015, where even as these communities are economically walled off, people realize about wealth through reality television shows, through smart phones, through social media that there's this whole other world going on even if they never leave a 3 or 4 or 5 square block area in Baltimore, or in any other party of the United states, so we are so much more interconnected, it actually means young people can become even angrier and even more alienated and even more desperate than they were in 1968 because they realize that there's this great bounty that exists in the United States, that they are not being allowed to participate in.
BROOKE: Peniel Joseph is a professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. Here’s civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, in 1942..
RUSTIN: Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don't turn.
BROOKE: Coming up, how much should we know about hitting terrorists, and unintended others, with death from the sky.. This is On the Media.