We all need to study underlying causes of Baltimore violence

If you live in or near a city, as the majority of Americans do these days, you’re probably not surprised at reports of violence, whether they’re committed by citizens, police, or both.

Certainly the events in Baltimore are different — it’s not the norm for teenagers to leave school and start looting or setting fire to cars. What isn’t different is the underlying anger and conditions that trigger such reactions.

The media have been getting their fair share of criticism for over-the-top coverage of the Baltimore protests and violence. A telling story in Politico Magazine singles out CNN for continuously airing its “video wallpaper” of a burning CVS store. But the cable channel was hardly alone. Fox, MSNBC, and nightly and local news all spent hours on a “Baltimore is burning” meme.

And at least some included stories about the city’s problems. MSNBC spoke to many community officials and leaders about the deeper issues facing Baltimore and what kinds of programs might help.

President Obama addressed the situation at a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that was supposed to focus on Japan-U.S. relations but spent a lot of time on the situation in Baltimore. “One burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again. The thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way, I think, have been lost in the discussion,” he said.

But the systemic problems of urban America go beyond reaction to one citizen who died in police custody, as Freddie Gray did on April 19. “If we think we’re going to send police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there — without as a nation and society saying what can we do to change those communities, to help lift up communities, and give those kids opportunity — then we’re not going to solve this problem,” Obama said.

Do too many people of color die or get injured in police custody? Absolutely. Why else would a city like Baltimore need to spend $5.7 million on payouts to victims of police brutality over four years? Too many police officers hide behind the “Blue Wall of Silence,” as it’s called. A story in The Atlantic looks at some of those cases, many of which were covered in a series in the Baltimore Sun.

No one pretends that solving the problems of urban America is easy or quick. If those problems were easy, they would be solved already.

The biggest problem facing urban America remains unemployment. Neighborhoods with higher unemployment rates have higher rates of violence.

Filmmaker Spike Lee plans to set a movie in Chicago’s troubled Englewood neighborhood. The working title is Chiraq, evoking images of the violence in that war-torn country. Many in the neighborhood — not to mention Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — are not pleased with the title, but no one can dispute the reality.

The Workforce Information and Resource Exchange, an initiative of the Chicago Jobs Council, published a map of city neighborhoods and their respective unemployment rates. It should come as no surprise that those neighborhoods with the highest unemployment rates, on the West and South sides, also have the highest crime rates. Englewood’s unemployment rate tops 21 percent, and it’s considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city.

What about Baltimore? The city’s overall unemployment rate is 8.2 percent. But consider this stark racial divide, from a story at FiveThirtyEight.com:

“The unemployment rate for black men in Baltimore between the ages of 20 and 24 was 37 percent in 2013, the latest data available; for white men of the same age range, the rate was 10 percent,” the story said.

“Nor do the prospects for black men improve much as they grow older: Just 59 percent of black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are working, compared with 79 percent of white men. Just 1 in 10 black men in Baltimore has a college degree, compared with half of whites (for ages 25 and up). And the median income for black households, at about $33,000, is little more than half that of whites.”

The story adds that, although Baltimore and a city like Ferguson, Mo., might be outliers in this area, with a greater racial divide, the situation is the norm. “There are dozens, if not hundreds, of American cities, large and small, with the same stew of poverty, inequality and discrimination,” the story said.

It’s easy — and necessary — to criticize biased media coverage and pundits who deliver dog-whistle comments about “thugs” who commit violent acts. After all, when the University of Kentucky lost a semifinal basketball game to the University of Wisconsin during the recent NCAA tournament, the school’s white fans committed plenty of violence afterward in the city of Lexington, setting cars on fire. But that was chalked up to “overzealous sports fans.” Only when the instigators are African American does it seem to turn to thuggery.

Instead, we need to focus on putting more resources into the myriad problems of cities: underfunded, overcrowded, and underperforming schools; blighted neighborhoods; a lack of youth activities; and a dearth of employment opportunities. Especially the employment opportunities. Start a business in those neighborhoods, and you’ll get loads of applicants.

What federal help can we expect? “I’m under no illusion that under this Congress we’re gonna get massive investments in urban communities,” Obama said, but he promised to try and work with Congress on economic solutions to help cities implement solutions.

Summer is approaching — a time when urban violence peaks. Already, with warm weekends and more people out in the streets, there are weekly tolls of shootings and killings every Monday morning.

This isn’t a problem that we can compartmentalize into certain neighborhoods. It affects all of us, wherever we live. And it’s up to all of us to try and find solutions.

But we can always hope, as shown in this beautiful photo from Baltimore. It might be just one child and one white policeman. But maybe they both walked away thinking differently about the other.

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