As could be predicted, given all of the attention and national spotlight focused on Baltimore as a result of the uprising and the unfortunate death of Freddie Gray, the city's public and private "white liberal establishment" has moved with amazing velocity to convene task forces, commissions and work groups to study the problem and return — a year later — with "new" efforts to ameliorate the conditions in communities devastated by decades of structural racism and economic inequality.
Unfortunately, what is striking about these renewed efforts to set the city on a trajectory of true social and economic transformation is that they have taken on the same "trickle down" organizational and programmatic design — disguised as a "community empowerment and engagement" process. Community folks are invited to participate, but the major funding, staffing and infrastructure development decisions have been made, in pre-planning sessions, by the folks who control and sit atop philanthropic organizations, corporations and public agencies.
I will never forget the scene in John Grisham's fascinating movie, "A Time to Kill," when the defense lawyer, Jack Brigance (played by Matthew McConaughey), was representing the defendant, Carl Lee Hailey (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who was accused of shooting the bigoted white men who brutally raped and assaulted his daughter. Mr. McConaughey — in his closing statement — asked the jurors to close their eyes and imagine the brutal beating and rape of a little girl. After retelling the story with graphic details, and without ever injecting the race of the victim, he asked the all-white jury to imagine her being a little white girl. It was the turning point of the trial, the defining moment of the movie, and Samuel Jackson was vindicated and set free.
Baltimore City is in need of a turning point, a defining moment to truly arrest the continuation and calcification of white privilege, structural racism and economic inequality. The white establishment's paternalistic "community transformation" approach has left the black community grossly dependent on "white help," obscenely passive when it comes to independent black agenda development, and trapped in a trance of unworthiness and "unprivileged-ness."
To quote writer and Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson, from his recent op-ed piece in the New York Times speaking to white people: "You do not want to know anything different from what you think you know. Your knowledge of black life, of the hardships we face, yes, those we sometimes create, those we most often endure, don't concern you much. You think we have been handed everything because we have fought your selfish insistence that the world, all of it — all its resources, all its riches, all its bounty, all its grace — should be yours first, and foremost, and if there's anything left, why then we can have some, but only if we ask politely and behave gratefully."
So, to avoid ending up where Baltimore ends up every five, 10 or 20 years — and where its white public/private officials are forever engaged in serial obfuscation and spending an inordinate amount of time trying to offer rational explanations for the re-emergence of the two Baltimores — one white, privileged and prosperous, and the other black, "unprivileged" and with grossly intractable socio-economic problems — I would like to offer Baltimore's white liberal establishment with the following recommendation:
Pause for a moment, postpone any upcoming structural racism symposiums, cancel the unveiling of any "new grand development plans" for Baltimore's impoverished and traumatized black communities. Now close your eyes and imagine that the children suffering from abject poverty and unrelenting trauma, the children who attend inner-city dilapidated school buildings without air conditioning, inadequate school supplies and taped over water facets (because the drinking water is contaminated) are white.
This recommendation is not going to eradicate structural racism and its short/long-term devastating, and negative socio-economic effects on Baltimore's poor, traumatized black communities; however, based on observable reality and a litany of irrefutable facts, it is clear that the simplistic solutions of "more education, more jobs and more programs" are insufficient. Furthermore, I believe that the white liberal stakeholders in Baltimore must engage in a serious, open, honest discussion about the city's true situation, which would begin with the acknowledgment that when the complexion of the victims are white, any and everything becomes possible.
Richard A. Rowe is president of the African American Male Leadership Institute in Baltimore. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.