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Apathetic no more [Commentary]

The land along the northern edge of the Patapsco serves as the front porch to a bejeweled coastline, the product of a re-making of Baltimore's Inner Harbor in a manner and to a degree that could have hardly been imagined a generation ago. And then, several blocks north, in the once commercially vibrant area of Waverly, standing in considerable contrast, there is McKenzie Elliott's front porch.

When a three-year-old is shot to death while merely indulging in the act of sitting on her own front porch on a summer afternoon, the magnificence and grandeur of the renewal of our city is dimmed and diminished. But, of course, not necessarily for long. As I write this I wonder if it will still be relevant by the time of its publication. We are so accustomed to news of violence that, even when it falls upon the innocent, each event tends to eventually become another forgotten story among the many that are accumulating a sorrowful history. Of course, there are professions of profound outrage in the beginning, along with the obligatory promises that justice will be done and that improving public safety is the highest of priorities. Yet none of us realistically expects that anything will come of it, or that things will meaningfully change. Events like this are a byproduct of who we have become as a community and as a people.

There are many good people who labor in our city, trying to beat back at least some of the consequences of non-existent employment prospects; single- and no-parent households; teenage parenthood; a lack of regard for education; the lure of the drug culture; and the easy acquaintance with violence. There are many more who have written-off disadvantaged communities as venues of unsolvable and overwhelming problems that are immune to any real improvement.

Indeed, there is a confluence of circumstances that leads to these problems, ranging from national policies all the way down to the state of the households themselves. Nevertheless, McKenzie Elliott, and all those who have gone before her and will surely come after, should at least compel us to a reasoned debate as to how to tackle some piece of this unacceptable puzzle of despair.

Perhaps that discussion should begin with the acknowledgment that, 60 years after the integration of public schools, and long after the subsequent breakdown of the vestiges of separate public facilities, our city largely remains a racially and economically segregated place where too many communities display little evidence of the achievements of the civil rights movement. Maybe we should include a frank conversation regarding our nationwide abandonment of manufacturing, and the resulting loss of well-paying jobs. We could also consider the local and small businesses that have vanished from many neighborhoods. We might discuss the service industries we promote, and whether they can ever offer employment opportunities capable of supporting a family and a strong community. We could debate how to create effective schools in the absence of stable households and a community of supportive and active parents.

Then we could talk about our continuing war on drugs, a prohibition that has created a gangster culture, with its glorification of violence and disregard for life, that, in some areas, is nothing less than a way of life. And we could reflect on how we can preserve the rights granted by the Second Amendment without creating a society in which guns are so vastly plentiful that we have substantially more guns and gun deaths per capita that any other developed country. Maybe we can consider establishing a goal of finding a way to replace that distinction with a similar dominance in educational test scores, public health or quality of life.

And we could surely consider how and why our good city can produce callous, reckless and morally bankrupt individuals capable of visiting such heinous acts on innocent bystanders who merely happen to be in the way. People who are raised in midst of our culture but are entirely apart from its traditions and values.

Whatever we choose to debate and no matter what actions we consider, posterity will judge us harshly if we continue to simply remain on our gleaming front porch, surveying the splendor we have created, while ignoring the degradations at our own back door. Especially when someone else's front porch can be such a dangerous place.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email address is rdburke@ober.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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