The Streets of Baltimore

The dichotomy between the two parts of the African-American community in the US is possibly best exemplified in Baltimore.  The Mayor and the Police Commissioner are black, as is 60% of the population, of which a significant part lives in ghetto conditions, with primarily fatherless families, partly because a high percentage of the men is in jail, young men dealing drugs on street corners, guns and shootings, no or little education, and no jobs.  Baltimore became the center of national attention because of the apparent murder of Freddy Gray by its police, part of a national epidemic of black men and boys being killed by police officers, often resulting in rioting blacks destroying their own neighborhoods in a desperate protest without any other outcome than making things worse.

The black segment of the middle class started emerging in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement and legislation and the underlying crisis of Fordism opened access to blue collar jobs for African-Americans, who could subsequently send their kids to college, helped by affirmative action policies and Pell grants.  These new black graduates found work in professional jobs and moved into neighborhoods that gradually became integrated, albeit not always without resistance from the white residents.  But not all blacks joined the middle class.  Large numbers stayed behind, many men didn’t get jobs, couldn’t support a family, chose a path of crime or became a victim of the war on drugs.  Their kids didn’t go to college, usually didn’t finish high school, and didn’t have a chance at a job paying a living wage, which almost inevitably created the next generation of children growing up without a father.  The late Senator Moynihan called this ‘the culture of poverty.’

Journalists and pundits analyzing the current problems tend to focus on the lack of confidence in the police among a majority of African-Americans.  Recently @TheFix quoted a Gallup survey showing that only one in four urban black Americans trust the police.  Vice versa, it has to be assumed that a significant percentage of police officers dealing with urban minorities have their own negative stereotypes, often generated by their daily experiences in the ghettos.  So two of the suggested solutions are building trust between police and the community, for instance by (re)introducing community policing, and ending the war on drugs.  It’s all fine, but it doesn’t start addressing the real problem.

Commentators who are willing to dig deeper realize that the problem is the total lack of perspective for the black underclass because of the lack of jobs and an education.   The problem here is that even when the education is provided the jobs still don’t exist.  Supply side economics doesn’t work any better in the labor market than in any other market.  The keywords of this approach are out-of-school youth  and workforce development programs, but every professional working in that field knows that job placements are the hardest to achieve and at the same time the main benchmark on which the funding of subsidized programs depends, causing this approach to spiral in a vicious circle.

Obama correctly observed this week that blue collar jobs are not coming back to the US, but there are two other realities he hasn’t addressed yet.  One is that the US will never again have full employment, even by the bizarre way in which employment is measured here, and the second is that a part of the underclass will never be able to join the workforce.  The solutions to these problems are redistribution of work and income, but both go against every tendency in US socio-economic policy in the last 20 years.  As long as that is the case, there will be many more Baltimores, unless President Sanders …….

Hugo Kijne


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