Baltimore Underscores a Need to Rethink How We Address Poverty in the United States

A protester leads marchers in a chant in Baltimore on Saturday, May 2, 2015, a day after charges were announced against the police officers involved in Freddie Gray's death.

In this space last week, I used a video column to speak about how the roots of the discontent in Baltimore led to the riotous unrest, National Guard patrols, and after-dark curfews. Thanks to my colleague Andrew Satter, American Progress’s Director of Video, who initially approached me with the idea as a novel way to show—not tell—the story behind the events that everyone was discussing.

People are still abuzz over the week in Baltimore, in the aftermath of the indictment of six police officers in connection with 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s death while in their custody.

Media headlines noted that Attorney General Loretta Lynch visited Gray’s family, civic leaders, and Baltimore police officers in an early, out-of-Washington appearance just one week after her swearing in as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

Separately, President Barack Obama seized on Baltimore as a case study in urban hopelessness and despair and to announce his aspiration to work on solving the problem for the remainder of his time in office and beyond. Appearing Monday at Lehman College in New York, President Obama unveiled a new nonprofit organization developed out of his existing White House initiative, My Brother’s Keeper. The new group brings together more than $80 million in commitments from corporations, philanthropies, and private donors to form the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.

“[T]his will remain a mission for me and for Michelle not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life,” the president said.

The sudden surge of attention on Baltimore and the plight of black people mired in the alienating poverty of urban centers seems well and good—as long as the spotlight is shining on the topical interest. But I can’t avoid worrying what comes later, when another story diverts media coverage in another direction.

Was the week of focused attention on Baltimore a turning point for public action? Or was it yet another missed opportunity, like the month or more of similar attention on Ferguson, Missouri, last year, or the prolonged examination of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles?

Fitting together all the jagged pieces of this puzzle isn’t impossible. But it will take concerted and collective actions akin to what the president envisions with his My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. What’s more, it will require a cold, unflinching willingness to tackle the institutional forces that created extreme and segregated pockets of poverty in many of our nation’s city centers.

My American Progress colleague Tracey Ross made this point in a 2013 column, arguing, “Changing demographics, advances in technology, and a globalized economy require us to rethink how we address poverty in our communities.” In particular, she noted that investments in public transportation, job creation, affordable housing, and crime reduction are essential ingredients to change urban landscapes.

I’d go one step beyond that to say that racially targeted efforts are necessary as well.  As politically unpopular as this might be, especially with conservative legislators, the fact remains that our highly segregated communities were designed with race-specific policies. Untangling the aftermath of these policies will, ultimately, require specific solutions aimed at those most affected by disparity.

At present, the political will does not exist for such a bold approach. But attitudes can evolve and I’m optimistic enough to believe that they will. Indeed, they must change. After all, how many more scenes of rioting can America watch before taking action?

This question was the focus of an online conversation among an unexpected group of viewers of our first-ever Race and Beyond video column. Ken Gepfert, who was the business editor at The Charlotte Observer when I was one of his reporters in the early 1980s, sent the video around to a collection of folks we worked with back in the day. I’d not been in touch with some of them for more than 25 years.

One of those included in the conversation was Ken Friedlein, a Baltimore native who is now an architect in Durham, North Carolina. Disturbed by the images of his hometown, Friedlein asked the online group to give some thought and share ideas in response to the question, “Where as a society do we go from here?”

It’s a noble gesture for a group of citizens, physically disconnected from Baltimore’s troubles, to come together over their concerns about the fate of our nation and cities. I spoke with my old friend Ken Friedlein and offered to join their conversation and to solicit opinions from those who read my column.

Please send me your thoughts about what we as citizens can do to ensure that the unrest in Baltimore was the last of its kind. This goal is mighty lofty and will require the brainpower and political muscle of broad swatches of the American polity. Maybe this kind of conversation helps create an environment that sparks the first steps to address the seeds of unrest in our urban centers. I’ll share your comments with my friends and with you in a future Race and Beyond column.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.