We get asked a lot by out-of-town folks how we are doing since last month’s riots. Well, first of all, neither our homes nor our business were damaged. That doesn’t mean we’re doing fine, however.
We were alert to what was happening. We closed our business early every day that week, and we encouraged employees to do whatever made them feel safe, even if that meant staying home. Schools closed, so some employees stayed home with children. A few meetings were cancelled. All of us called off evening events, or had them automatically cancelled because of the mandatory curfew.
We know why this happened. Anyone living in an urban area has to have noticed the economic disparities – the “good” neighborhoods and the “bad” ones. The drug dealers and the homeless. The unemployed and the underemployed. And this didn’t just happen overnight – it’s a product of decades (centuries?) of economic opportunity passing by scores of people.
Recent reports have highlighted the vast difference between the wealth of our black citizens versus the white ones. After the war, middle-class homes were being built by the thousands, and none of them were available to blacks. One startling example is the town of Levitttown, PA. Those homes sold in the 1950’s for $8,000, and today are worth between $400,000 and $500,000, thus building the wealth of the middle class. But only for white people-African-Americans were not allowed to purchase homes there. And this happened everywhere, not only in housing, but in education and jobs. We systematically and legally deprived thousands of people from opportunities to build wealth, to climb into the middle class and beyond. We now have generations of families who have grown up in what we built – poor neighborhoods, who are expected to fund schools, provide jobs, and good homes, none of which they are able to do. Added to that is poor relations between the police and the people who live in those neighborhoods.
I knew the death of Freddie Gray was going to start something. We had seen photos of him in a hospital bed, in traction from his nearly severed spine, and breathing through tubes. As soon I heard he had died, I texted my husband, who was out of town. He came home immediately. We were never in physical danger, though it took me hours to get home from work because of all of the streets that were blocked. We watched the crisis unfold on TV. I was not horrified or angry. Decades of frustration, hopelessness, and despair unfolded that night. I understood completely.
Before dawn the following morning, scores of people drove to the affected areas to sweep the streets, and pick up debris. Others came by to give muffins and coffee to the sweepers. Many new movements grew out of the chaos, like www.SupportBaltimore.com, the Fund for Rebuilding Baltimore, and Where is Help Needed? to sign up to volunteer.
I don’t believe this is just a black and white issue – clearly we are growing a larger lower class and lower middle class who are beginning to see the lack of opportunities before them. Education is costly and out of reach; jobs without a post-secondary education are low paying and without benefits. We are not fixing the problems, we are expanding them.
So when people ask me about the riots, I say that it was a surreal moment, one that made me gasp but also made me proud—of our mayor, our city, and the many good people who stood up to make an imperative point. Things must change. I don’t know if the hopeful moments we saw after the riots will last, but certainly the sense that these riots meant something will fade quickly if efforts are not made to address the root causes of these issues. The 6 police officers involved – male and female, black and white – were formally indicted last week. I hope we treat this with the seriousness it deserves. We can’t put a band aid on this. We’ve created systemic barriers to opportunities – now we have to create systemic pathways to success.