The race riots that followed the recent murders of unarmed black men by police in places like Ferguson and Baltimore have liberal commentators and politicians placing the blame on poverty, specifically among inner-city African-Americans. This is an American tradition: progressives wrote similar editorials calling for antipoverty programs, and politicians issued (empty) promises to enact them, after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles provoked rioting in the South Central neighborhood in the early 1990s, and following the even bigger urban conflagrations of 1968 in Detroit, Newark and Watts.
I grew up poor, and I have struggled financially. I hate poverty; I’m all for any government program that tries to mitigate the pain of not knowing whether one will be able eat, keep the electricity on, or avoid homelessness. Still, the poverty-causes-race-riots tautology is weird. What about the cops?
Baltimore was in trouble long before six police officers arrested Freddie Gray without cause, snapped his spine, gave him a so-called “rough ride” (handcuffed, unbuckled, driven wildly in order to bang you around) in a paddy wagon, and refused his repeated entreaties for medical attention. Too many of its citizens were dark-skinned, impoverished, underemployed, disenfranchised and victimized by gangs and drug dealers.
But it wasn’t a spontaneous outburst of class warfare that caused the riots — it was Gray’s murder by the police, and the authorities’ non-response. Ditto for Ferguson: no killing of Michael Brown by a cop, no riot.
Not that the liberals aren’t onto something: the police in Beverly Hills don’t shoot that many unarmed guys in the back, as they’re running away. Cops in the Hamptons don’t choke fat dudes, who aren’t going anywhere fast, to death on sidewalks in broad daylight. Police don’t mess with you if you’re rich and therefore powerful.
Cops in Baltimore kill unarmed non-suspects because they think they can get away with it. They think they can get away with it because they always have. They always have because unarmed non-suspects in Baltimore are poor.
The victims are poor because they’re black.
Pundits get it wrong when they try to explain the roots of poverty. “The real barriers to social mobility,” writes moderate Republican columnist David Brooks in The New York Times, “are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.”
In the same newspaper on the same day, Johns Hopkins history professor N.D.B. Connolly gets closer to the truth, pointing to structural racism with its roots in slavery. “The problem rests on the continued profitability of racism. Freddie Gray’s exposure to lead paint as a child, his suspected participation in the drug trade, and the relative confinement of black unrest to black communities during this week’s riot are all features of a city and a country that still segregate people along racial lines, to the financial enrichment of landlords, corner store merchants and other vendors selling second-rate goods.”
But Connolly falls short with his proposed solution when he calls for a “state of emergency” on “the problem of residential discrimination, by devising a fairer tax structure, by investing in public space, community policing, tenants’ rights and a government jobs program.” These would all be moves in the right direction, and I support them, but to pronounce window-dressing reforms “solutions” is ridiculous.
Yesterday, the day Baltimore’s dynamic young black district attorney filed charges including murder against her city’s six killer cops, was May 1st: International Workers Day. Which ought to have reminded editors at places like the Times — which has employed numerous far-right opinion columnists, but never a leftist — that poverty is caused by capitalism.
Liberals believe capitalism is a good system prone to excesses, which they propose to mitigate via reform and regulation: poverty, income inequality and racism associated with class are flaws in an otherwise laudable economic model.
But that’s not true. Poverty, and the racism that goes with it, are features, not bugs. The ruling classes require a permanent underclass to exploit directly, and serve as a warning to workers not to ask for big raises, shorter hours or other improvements in workplace conditions — be quiet, lest you wind up like them.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
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