It’s hard to believe that it’s already been two years since the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American resident of Baltimore who died in police custody, and the subsequent protests and riots that stunned the city and nation.
On April 12, 2015, Baltimore Police Department officers arrested Gray, who sustained neck and spine injuries while being transported in a police vehicle. He died a week later, and spontaneous protests started following Gray’s funeral service.
At least 250 people were arrested and 285 to 350 businesses were damaged, while Baltimore drew national attention. A state of emergency was declared within the city limits, and thousands of police and Maryland National Guard troops were deployed.
On May 1, 2015, Gray’s death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner, and six police officers were charged with myriad offenses, including second-degree murder. Three of the officers were acquitted, and last July Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby dropped the charges against the remaining three officers.
The Freddie Gray case is now a part of Baltimore history, a seething remnant of the city’s long and complicated racial legacy. But what, if anything, have we learned since the protests? Can the racial divide truly be bridged in the 21st century, at a time when hate crimes and vitriol appear to be on the rise?
Jmore recently asked six prominent community members and thought leaders — Jewish and African-American — to explore the issue and offer their insights into this topic that pervades the psyche and depths of American history and culture.
By Wanda Draper
Imagine being told where you can live and eat, the places you can go in your community and where you can’t, with whom you can socialize, and even how you interact with them. Laws dating back to Colonial times in Maryland — and every decade up through desegregation — have drawn borders on our geography, social spaces and relationships.
Baltimore’s history of racial segregation is a particularly long one. In 1910, it was the first city in the nation to declare that separate blocks be created for white and black residents. The federal practice of redlining followed, and only deepened the lines dividing neighbor from neighbor. Just a few decades ago, black and white children were finally allowed to play together at the swimming pools inside Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, following the desegregation of that facility.
So, while history has innumerable examples of creating barriers that have prevented collaboration and understanding between us, institutions also have existed to deconstruct those barriers. We see our museum, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, as one of those spaces designed to foster interaction: from our free gallery, to our community forums, films and other public programs.
We also see our role as helping to humanize history. We wish to give a means for people to personally engage with a community that might not be their own, in order to bridge gaps. The “Generations Tour” is a new, self-guided tour that we released this year with that goal in mind. It recounts Maryland history through the eyes of two fictitious individuals. “Chima” is a captured West African sold into slavery and “Gladys Marie Greenfield” is a successful businesswoman who resides today in Oxon Hill, Md. Their stories lead visitors to 12 exhibits in the permanent collection that cover 400 years of African-American history in one hour.
Through the footsteps of Chima and Gladys, visitors can experience how history affected individuals, and how individuals formed the African-American experience in Maryland. Our current exhibit, “Sons,” compares how Maryland African-American men are often perceived, to how they see themselves. We hope that the chance to question our own perspectives, against those of the men in the exhibit, will begin to dissolve differences.
We offer our building as a place of connection and where conversations can happen now, and into the future, in spite of the pain and division in our past. We hope that visitors leaving the museum realize that we are more alike than different, and that African-American history is American history.
The future is ours to make together.
Wanda Draper is executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
By Molly Amster
White supremacy. It’s the belief that white people deserve to dominate society because they are inherently superior to people of color, especially Black people. In America, white supremacy gave us the slave trade and 246 years of slavery, the Civil War, legal segregation, lynching, widespread police brutality and the mass incarceration of Black people.
Some people eagerly embrace the ugly idea that white people should be on top, and today’s white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups are growing terrifyingly bolder. But you don’t have to be a KKK member to recognize how white supremacist ideas have invaded your mind. We all grew up in a racist society and these ideas are everywhere — that’s why we all need to look at our country’s history, the structures and standards in society, and even within ourselves, to truly uproot racism.
When we hear “white supremacy,” we feel defensive. We are good people. We don’t support hateful ideology. But no matter how uncomfortable, these words are accurate: they help us understand that racism isn’t just about “different” but about “less than.”
White supremacy isn’t just hating Black people and it doesn’t stop at police brutality. It shows up in nearly every aspect of our government, culture and daily lives. Our political system ensures that white people — individually and collectively — enjoy built-in advantages over other racial groups. Why do mainstream conservative politicians restrict Black voting rights, the centerpiece of freedom and democracy? Why do police kill a Black man stopped for a broken taillight with his family in the car but buy burgers for a confessed white supremacist murderer of nine Black people? Why do U.S. courts permit employers to discriminate against people with typically Black hairstyles?
It’s the subtle belief that Black people and other people of color are different, dangerous or just less worthy. When the name “Mahershala Ali” is hard to pronounce but lots of people know how to say “Tchaikovsky.” When young Black children are assumed to be older than they are, and less innocent. Even the term ‘minorities’ diminishes and collapses vast, diverse groups of people — who are the majority of the people in the world — and names them literally ‘minor,’ less than white people.
Not all Jews are white. White-skinned Jews are also the hated targets of the neo-Nazis and white nationalists. It’s complicated. But none of us are immune to subtle ways of thinking white people and culture are normal, mainstream, average and regular, and Black people and other people of color are different or less. Policy changes are important, but they are not enough on their own. If we’re to truly change our society to one that upholds the dignity of every person, we need to recognize white supremacy — no matter how subtle — within our unconscious, our actions, our communities, our institutions, our culture and our laws. “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Ethics of the Fathers)
Molly Amster is the Baltimore director of Jews United for Justice.
A Matter of White Privilege
By Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin
I am not a racist. At least I hope not. Yet in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray and the seemingly endless tragic encounters between members of the black community and law enforcement officers across the nation, I realized something in America seems to be very wrong, something that I had been ignoring.
So when I heard an organization called Baltimore Racial Justice Action offers a program called the “White People’s Course,” I signed up and walked away from the course with a new awareness:
1) Racism in America is structural, baked into our history, our neighborhoods, our institutions, our attitudes. It is a defining characteristic of American society. Rooting it out must be an ongoing effort. Even more, the very concepts of “blackness” and “whiteness” are social constructs, categories of the mind and exigencies of American history more than manifestations of the body. They are, for most intents and political and social purposes, concepts that never needed to be. They have no inherent independent social import; they are slippery to define; and they get their power from the ways they are wielded.
2) “Whiteness” confers unacknowledged privilege to those it deems white. It is the default way of being in America, the norm, offering “whites” the ability to be unself-conscious about themselves and their culture. To be not-white is to feel otherwise, to be other than the norm. It is to feel that you live in another’s culture and you must be “bilingual,” bicultural, learning the manners and customs of the majority culture (though they do not need to learn yours).
3) We do not need to be personally racist to be complicitous in supporting a racist society. Racism doesn’t always require intent. Just by being part of a system with historic injustice that has not been redressed, we are part of the legacy of racism in our social, economic, political and penal systems. For example, in the wake of the Freddie Gray matter, former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake invited the Department of Justice to come to Baltimore and assess our way of policing. The DOJ found, among other issues, that Baltimore has a history of “unconstitutional Stops, Searches, and Arrests; [and] enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of Stops, Searches and Arrests of African Americans …” To their credit, the city and the Baltimore Police Department are working to undo this behavior.
But it is an indication, an epitome, of the persistent legacy of racism that must be addressed and overcome.
The American Jewish community is no stranger to prejudice. Recently, we’ve seen a disturbing uptick in anti-Semitic acts, including bomb threats and the desecration of our cemeteries. Our sense of peoplehood and our experience in America have set us apart from and distinguished us somewhat from the full definition of “white.” Yet we do share a bit of white privilege and participate in a lingering racist society. It is right and necessary, therefore, that we learn more about it and do our part to set it right.
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is a Baltimore-based activist, author, teacher and spiritual leader.
Prejudice & Pride
By Octavia Shulman
When the pediatrician said our 2-year-old would likely grow to be 6-foot-2, my immediate reaction was dread.
My son’s kippah and tzitzit mark him as Jewish, but his skin color tags him as black. I wondered how soon it would be before people started being afraid of him. Three months after he started preschool, his moreh (teacher) called to tell me he was aggressive. When I asked if his behavior was consistent with the other children (all white), she said yes. When I asked if she had called anyone else’s parents, she said no.
Almost 60 years ago, James Baldwin wrote that to be black means to be “simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin cause[s] in other people.” Today, I still lack control over how others view or treat me and my children because of our race. But through commitment to diversity, black community and social justice, I do control how we see ourselves.
A fellow day school parent once told me, “I don’t teach my children to see color.” Comments like this are meant to be reassuring, but instead are damaging. We teach our children to acknowledge and celebrate diversity because there is nothing wrong with it. No one has to be blind to the melanin in our skin. It says nothing negative about our value, ability or propensity. Our blackness is not a deficiency.
Because of our commitment to Jewish observance, we send our children to day school, keep kosher and live in a neighborhood where we can walk to shul. These desires don’t have to be inconsistent with a commitment to diversity, but often they are. We have no choice: with my family out of state, we have to be purposeful with relationships so that our kids don’t only see black people serving them in schools, shuls, restaurants and supermarkets.
When we were looking for a home 10 years ago, our real estate agent did not want to show us properties in Reservoir Hill. She told us by moving here, we would be pioneers. Our neighborhood is 90 percent black; 31 percent of families live below the poverty line and the majority of people have a high school diploma or less.
My husband and I are upper-middle class with advanced degrees. For our agent, these differences were enough cause for separation. I disagree. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, I see our differences as a force for change.
For years, our neighborhood elementary school employed no librarian and had fewer books than my children. Our only playground was a wooden-and-metal structure mounted over concrete. And there was no access to fresh food.
It has taken our entire village — all races, income levels and influence — to change those things. This is how I understand and teach tikkun olam, repairing the world. As long as inequities exist, I know my children also will feel a personal responsibility to take up the work even though they may not complete it.
Octavia Shulman is a lawyer and educator. She lives in Reservoir Hill with her husband and two children.
The Perils of ‘Otherness’
By Marc Steiner
Freddie Gray is dead, and after two years not one person has been held responsible. In fact, the justice system acquitted or dropped charges on everyone likely to have inflicted the fatal injuries on this young man.
I have no intention of retrying that case or assigning blame. I do, however, want to point my finger at the true perpetrator of this homicide: Our society’s 400-year history of racism.
In very few places has that racism been more institutionalized than Baltimore, the city that invented legalized housing segregation or “redlining.” That 1910 housing policy became a cancer that aggressively spread throughout our city and affected policing, education, employment, health care and incarceration rates.
We now have in Baltimore a phenomenon coined by Dr. Lawrence Brown as the “White L” and the “Black Butterfly.” The “White L” runs through the center of Baltimore to the harbor, where most development takes place. The “Black Butterfly” includes the outlying areas where most of Baltimore’s Black population lives, and where no development occurs unless it involves gentrification and displacement.
Consider the world in which Freddie Gray lived, one of the poorest “Black Butterfly” communities. The backdrop of this world is the stark bedlam of abandoned buildings, lead paint, pervasive unemployment, gangs, mass incarceration and schools with undrinkable water. Dislocation and isolation permeates the ether.
Most people reading this article are so unfamiliar with this world that it may as well be on another planet. And it is this “otherness” that allows racism to brew and ferment. Racism is in our marrow, and we must acknowledge how deeply it affects our being, our thoughts, the words we use, and how we make decisions as a society.
Studies reveal that Black Americans face discrimination in housing, employment and health care, yet these factors are often ignored when policymakers make decisions. One glaring example is Baltimore’s Port Covington project. Sagamore Development was granted over $1 billion in subsidies, with no guarantees for low-income housing or construction jobs for inner city residents, no promise of Black-owned business participation, and with more money allocated for roads and parks than in the entire city budget. Such policymaking is at the heart of what keeps racism alive. I contend that for every policy decision, the foremost consideration must be, “Does it positively affect the lives of inner city residents and work to dismantle racism?”
Imagine Freddie Gray in a world without the “Black Butterfly.” Without lead paint or gangs. With access to good schools and healthy food options. Would he be a doctor? Lawyer? Bricklayer? I don’t know. Alive? Most likely.
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” I would humbly addend that statement to assert that the problem of the 21st century is how to address the profound nature of racism in our individual psyches and our national consciousness, and how to translate that evolution of heart into just and humane policies.
Marc Steiner is host of “The Marc Steiner Show” on WEAA 88.9 FM at Morgan State University.
Doing It Ourselves
By Ericka L. Alston-Buck
I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that every March for the rest of my life, my phone will ring, I will receive random emails and social media notifications, with the question always being, “How’s life in Sandtown, post-Freddie Gray?”
My optimism wishes my response would change, that our conditions would change, our level of hopelessness has changed. But it hasn’t much; for some it hasn’t changed at all.
The residents of this community still live in the “other Baltimore.” We have no fancy restaurants, no high-rise buildings and still no waterfront view. We also have no jobs, no access to a quality public school education, no living wage and many of us are still numbing the effects of intentional and strategic systemic and institutional racism with drugs and alcohol.
In this Baltimore, it’s still OK to have open-air drug markets just feet away from public schools; it’s still fine for children to “play” in between teddy bear shrines of murdered loved ones and yellow crime scene tape.
But it’s no longer OK to just ignore us.
Race relations in our community now looks and feels like it is our responsibility as a community to take care of ourselves, use our voice, collective talents and resources, to not just be seen and heard but to never be ignored again. Change won’t happen any other way.
Millions of dollars have been promised again. We’ve seen that before; this time is different or at least presented differently; a federal-funded grant called ReCAST, specifically designed to assist communities in healing from trauma. Five million dollars, here in Sandtown, money given to the usual suspects directed by the Baltimore City Health Department and disguised as a “community initiative.” But if you ask community members about their needs or even if they know that the money is here, the response is just as it was “pre-Freddie Gray” — what money? We need jobs.
The Kids Safe Zone is still standing, our response to the uprising when we heard the community say there were no resources for children, no safe space to play. Nearly two years, we’re still here, funded solely through donations, nearly $300,000 in donations that have kept our doors open and 45 to 100 children alive every day, with an operating budget of $385,000, and no foundations supporting us. No foundation will allow a safe, drop-in center for children to fit into their wheelhouse, so we continue to take care of ourselves in the other Baltimore.
We recently partnered with Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore and Catholic Charities to provide services for the “thugs,” the youth that need us most, ages 14 to 25, to allow them to define their trauma and introduce them to holistic ways to heal.
Maybe my response will change next year — I doubt it — but I’m more hopeful, because those of us who live in the other Baltimore are committed to changing it. Our resiliency demands it.
Ericka L. Alston-Buck is chief executive officer of Maryland Community Health Initiatives, Inc.
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