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Baltimore is not your city

Suburban visitors to Baltimore see its best and criticize its worst from afar.

"So sad that our city is being destroyed by our own people," one of the many Facebook statuses on my newsfeed read on the night of the riots in Baltimore. The person who wrote it lives in the suburbs of Harford County.

For the majority of my life, I, too, have lived in the suburbs of this same county, as have the majority of people that I went to high school with. So, it was surprising to note how many statuses I saw that identified Baltimore as "my city." Indeed, there were dozens of them.

But for us in the suburbs, Baltimore has never really been our city. Sure, we may go downtown to see a show at the Hippodrome, watch an Orioles game, or to eat at the Rusty Scupper in the Inner Harbor, but these activities are a far cry from the reality that many of the people who actually live in Baltimore must endure. We in the suburbs have the privilege of experiencing Baltimore at its best and criticizing its most vulnerable inhabitants from afar when the city is at its worst.

While my father and my grandparents grew up in the inner city, they all moved to the suburbs a long time ago. Furthermore, they will be the first to admit that the Baltimore they were raised in is not the same Baltimore that exists today.

Over the past few decades, many of the wealthy, predominantly white families who lived in Baltimore fled to the suburbs, diminishing the city's tax base. Factories were closed; good jobs were outsourced to other cities, and eventually to other countries. In the latter half of the 20th century, for example, the city lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs, which decreased its industrial workforce by 75 percent. Meanwhile, poverty and crime have flourished. The effects of these different factors are clear: In Freddie Gray's neighborhood, just 42 percent of the residents are employed, below the national average of 59 percent.

Yet despite this drastic transformation of Baltimore, some of those in the world of well-off suburban America have created a sort of mythos, pretending they are still a part of urban America, an urban America that has now been struggling for decades. This dangerous fantasy gives suburban America the justification they desire to impose their judgments and ideals on the people who actually inhabit the world of which they pretend to be a part.

Many of the same suburban Americans on my newsfeed who identified Baltimore as their city also pointed out how, if they had been born in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore, they would surely get out of that situation through hard work and determination, as if a work-hard attitude magically solves all socioeconomic distresses. Hard work and determination are, after all, an essential part of the suburban American mythos. It's also much easier to blame the victim of poverty directly rather than to examine the structures in society that created the victim in the first place.

The point of all this is that suburban outsiders don't really know the realities of what the poor in Baltimore go through each day, just as we don't really live in Baltimore. This situation is certainly a race issue, but it is also a class issue. Most of us in the suburbs don't know what it's like to work two or three minimum-wage jobs to support our families. Most of us don't know what it's like to attend school in a deteriorating public education system. Most of us don't know what it's like to have a family member murdered by the police for no apparent reason. In short, most of us don't know what it's like to live in Baltimore below the poverty line, so we should stop pretending like we do.

No, none of this morally justifies the violence and the fires started in the city, nor should it be inferred that we in suburban America cannot learn about and sympathize with the struggles of the poor. But what it does suggest is this: if only suburban America had cared as much about the people in lower socioeconomic classes who actually live in Baltimore as they do about the fires that started there, perhaps there would be no fires in the first place.

Scott Novak is a student at Rollins College. His email is rnovak@rollins.edu.

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