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Image by Milad Fakurian
  • Writer's pictureSteven Chapman

When Anger Sets A City On Fire


For a week, Baltimore has been embroiled in the chaos of riots, looting, military guards, and angry people. Innocent shop owners were victimized by young people breaking out windows and/or walking off with merchandise, while cars and places of business were being set aflame. People became captives in their own homes for fear of being caught up in the violence if they left that refuge.

Yet, the problem in Baltimore is much larger than what is commonly being portrayed as an issue of “racist cops killing black young men”. The powder keg was lit by the unfortunate death of Freddie Gray. However, it is wrong to assume that this death (or any similar recent happening, like Ferguson, MO) is really the event that led to this outburst. The powder kegs have been loaded and compressed over decades.

I wish we knew what happened to Freddie Gray, but we do not. We may never know (But someone does, and He will serve justice in due time). But in the meantime, how do we understand this situation, and is there anything we can do to diminish the possibility of its happening again?

I have got to ask: Where did all of this anger come from?

Some have made a point of emphasizing that when a white young man is shot white people do not resort to rioting. Repeatedly, I have seen a meme of a CNN graphic with data on the “Killed by Cops” racial breakdown in 2014. It shows the following:

  1. Whites – 414;

  2. African-Americans – 233;

  3. Hispanics – 138;

  4. Asian – 15;

  5. Unreported – 311.

Before going any further, let me make clear that one unjustified killing is too many.

However, the fallacy that is purported with this data is – more whites are killed by police than blacks, but whites don’t respond violently. While the actual number of whites killed by police officers is higher, that far from tells the entire story. You also need to consider the demographic data:

  1. White, non-Latino – 62.3%;

  2. Latino – 17.1% – (just under 1/3 of Whites);

  3. African-American – 13.2% (just over 1/5 of Whites).

If you weigh the demographics, and look at the per capita numbers a starkly different picture arises. If all of the population groups were the same, death tolls between these groups would be:

  1. Whites – 414;

  2. African-American – 1095;

  3. Hispanics -483.

In other words, the comparison of blacks-to-whites killed moves from about half the actual to 2 1/2 times per capita. Do you see the problem there? I see how looking into these numbers can be a painful thing.

So do we place all of the blame on those “racist cops”? They have become the target of choice. The cops are the easy fall-guy. But pinning the blame on them doesn’t help us really get to the heart of the problem.

Blaming “racist cops” doesn’t for starters address the real problem of crime in African-American neighborhoods. While the disproportionate numbers of African-American men in prison does give us reason to pause and question the fairness of the judicial system, can we say that it is the reason that so many black men are behind bars? While we can admit that there is strong data that says African-American men are likely to receive stricter punishment than their white counterparts, does that gives us a full diagnosis? Or shall we blame selective enforcement that targets people of color more frequently than whites? Again, that could be part of the problem.

But we have to be more honest than that. We can’t choose to remain unflinchingly blind to the real problem of crime that is disproportionately higher in black neighborhoods. The differentiation in the amount of crimes being committed is not fully explained by racial profiling or unfair prosecution. We do have a problem with black crime — the question that needs to be explored more fully is WHY? What causes young, African-American men to act out in this way?

When we dig further here, I think we will also begin to see some of the reasons for the angry responses that destroy African-American young men’s lives. We will discover that finding scapegoats will not help, and taking the time to resolve it will not be found in a quick fix.

When I moved to Chicago 18 years ago, I took the time to wander through the city. I noticed that in many African-American neighborhoods houses would be in shambles and streets would be lined with litter. It simply looked like everybody stopped caring long ago. I asked a ministry partner on the southside of the city, why it appeared that African-American households didn’t seem to take pride in their homes and neighborhoods. His response was telling, “They have simply lost hope. When you lose hope other things just don’t seem to matter.”

Lost hope! I have never been there. I always could catch a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel (and usually it wasn’t the light of an oncoming train). I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like to see a desperate situation is “as good as it gets.” Yet, I do have an idea of how being in such a situation could make me act out in anger at the system(s) that culminated in me being so desperate.

So what has led to this sense of hopelessness within the African-American community?

I don’t think we will ever be able to completely catalogue all the decisions and events that have eaten away at any sense of hopefulness that young men of color might have otherwise had. At the same time, I don’t think that we have to go all the way back to slavery and the “Jim Crow laws” of the south for by doing so we run the risk of placing all of the blame on previous generations, and convince ourselves that “blacks just need to get over it.”

First of all, consider the effects of systemic poverty. Census data on wages by ethnicity each year since 1967 show a $20,000 gap in median income between whites and blacks present at the start of the period. It has never gotten smaller, and on occasion has gotten larger. During that time period, White incomes rose on average nearly $8,000. However, black incomes only increased by about $6,000. As of 2012 the median income was whites $57,009; blacks $33,321. According the government threshold, an African-American family of 6 with a median income would be below the line of poverty. Add to that consideration that African-Americans live predominantly in the high cost urban environment.

Nearly 1 in 4 families in Baltimore neighborhoods in which the riots broke out are in poverty. Needless to say, those are prominently black neighborhoods.

Some would offer the advice to just raise the minimum wage. However, the net result could be the further loss of employment by some who currently have some job. Those cities, like Seattle, which have already raised minimum wages have seen the food industry particularly hit by lay-offs as the cost of going out to eat has costed some restaurants needed business. The net result is some of the entry-level jobs that young people used to get into to begin an employment record are drying up.

That brings us to the second consideration – lack of jobs. When the economic downturn of 2008 swelled, in some ways those hardest hit by the employment collapse were the young urban men. As adults nearing retirement age were unable to find employment many turned to filling jobs that were traditionally entry-level jobs for young people. As the unemployment rates dropped to nearer normal levels, young people were left out of the recovery. By 2012 young white men still had an unemployment level of 12%, however, black men 16-30 still had a 25% unemployment rate.

As of the most recent estimates in Chicago, African-American young men still have an unemployment rate of 25-28%. But that doesn’t just include the high school dropouts. It includes young men who have completed a college degree, but are unable to secure employment. They are left to wonder what was the use of all of the college expense if it didn’t help them to get a job. I could quickly record a list of numerous young black men who have come through our youth ministry program that are struggling to find employment with a living wage.

However, the problem does not originate with difficulty getting a job that pays a living wage. The roots of anger begin much earlier. The course for angry young black man is often established in the halls of urban schools. Urban schools have a remarkably poor record. Try as educators may, the results for urban schools as a whole do not seem to improve. The state by state drop-out rate, for 2011-12, shows black students dropped out of school on average 15% more often than white students.

Suburban schools, with budgets that are often much more flexible because of the property values of community residence compared to the values of property in the cities, have tremendous opportunities and are able to secure high quality teachers. The urban poor often have to settle for poorer quality teachers providing poorer quality instruction in poorer quality facilities. Because of the union jobs contract schools, there same struggling schools find it hard to dismiss poor teachers. Many students are so concerned about their own safety that they can’t give their attention to their education.

This does not intend to suggest that all urban teachers are terrible. Some urban schools have been able to develop a collection of high quality teachers that are giving their students a great education. Other schools, particularly in some of the worst neighborhoods, have not faired so well. When given the chance it makes sense to leave some of those schools for the relative safety of schools in other neighborhoods.

But sometimes, the problem is not as much with the teachers as it is with poor management and oversight at the level of local school Principals. Can it be the best decision to that tell teachers that disruptive students cannot be disciplined because it harms the school’s attendance rates upon which funds are distributed? So teachers are made subservient to class clowns, or worse yet, classroom bullies with no recourse.

Even then, if the school gets good teachers and a good Principal, the system is stacked against them. During twelve years as a member of the Local School Council, of which 10 were served as the Chairman, far too often the school would be on a path to improvement only to be sent on a detour by changing curriculum, decreased classroom sizes, and new unfunded or underfunded expectations sent down for to the local level from the educational behemoth downtown or in Washington.

The poorer quality of their education then becomes a road block for them getting the highest quality college education. The average 16.9 ACT score for African-American students, compared with the 22.2 for whites, keeps many of them from qualifying for admission to highly ranked academic institutions.

If the doors of opportunity will ever open allowing a rush of hope to flood into their hopeless existence, part of the solution will be found in overcoming the educational disparity that currently exists. We need to find means to equalize the funding disparity, but we also need to loose the grip of the educational monopoly on the urban schools, and replace them with systems that place the welfare of students at least on par with the welfare of teachers. Imagine what could happen if good Christian teachers and school administrators would accept a mission challenge to serve as teachers and Principals in under performing urban schools.

Yet, we still have not exhausted the list of life issues that make these young black man so angry. The problem of education has shown a link to the next issue that has created this angry environment. Fathers at home have a correlation to higher grades in school.

African-American youth are more than twice as likely to grow up in a single-family household as white students. Over half of these young people grow up in a mom-only home. Seven percent grow up in a dad only household. And 1 in 10 grow up with neither parent.

One Baltimore mother, Toya Graham, became a viral sensation for pulling her son out of the rioting while proceeding with her motherly beat down (of course others criticized her). Honestly, as I saw that mom in action, I was caught between cheering her on and asking, “But where are the dads?”

Identifying this issue is not meant to demean the single mothers of these young people. They are often doing their best. It simply is meant to identify that the absence of fathers in the household, or other strong male role model has had devastating effects.

Over the last decade numerous studies have been released that show the adverse impact that young people raised in single-parent families endure, particularly those who are raised without their fathers. The absence of fathers has demonstrated a 3 times higher rate of poverty, higher crime rates, incarceration rates that are 70 times higher. Single-parent family children are at higher risk of abuse and neglect. They are more likely to be sexually active, and users of drugs and alcohol at an early age.

Bill Cosby made headlines when he came out with a statement that absentee fathers are one of the biggest reasons for the problems in the African-American community. While some have sought to discredit Cosby’s assertion because of other life issues which have allegedly been exposed about Cosby more recently, the studies of negative consequences for single-parent family children cannot be ignored.

One of the best things that could happen to this generation of young African-American men is for their fathers to take seriously their role in the home. But since the decline of the black family has become a generational problem, it will take mentors for the current fathers to equip them for the task.

Yet, the African-American family is not the only thing that is broken. Often the African-American community is broken.

The African-American community commonly advances the notion that “it takes a village to raise a child.” With the development of housing for the poor in the 50’s and 60’s the fabric of that urban village began to be dismantled. The poor were dislocated from neighborhoods into units that warehoused others with limited prospects and even less hope.

That dismantling was accelerated in the 70’s and 80’s as cornerstones of the community, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, joined the exodus from these neighborhoods and moved into suburban communities, leaving the previous community in the grip of an economic tailspin. But as those cornerstone members of the family relocated it also left an absence of mentors and models for the ensuing generations.

Without people from the community to look out for each other, and as families themselves collapsed, youngsters found it easier to be drawn into the destructive community of gang involvement. In these groups they found others who shared their anger.

This is the place where Christians could possibly have the greatest impact. What if Christians were to move back into urban neighborhoods with a mission of being a light in the darkness of some of these communities? What possibilities could present themselves if Christians provided mentors, and environments to experience family community so young people aren’t left looking to only find the worst options?

As I consider all of the cultural trends and issues that play on the anger of young African-American men, I feel as if I would also struggle under the hopelessness that has generated such anger.

If we are going to bring lasting calm to Baltimore, and overcome youthful anger by resurrecting hope for other African-American communities and individuals, we have a lot of work to do as a nation, as churches, and as Christian and non-Christian individuals.

Or we can stand still and wait for the next city to be set aflame.

–Pastor Steve

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