The city of Baltimore got through this past weekend with only a few shots, killing three and wounding six, plus an editorial shot from Bret Stephens, the smart New York Times columnist, in a piece headlined, “American Crime and the Baltimore Model.”
Stephens gets most of his facts right, but the column suffers from a classic problem: He’s 200 miles from Baltimore and seems to have based his reporting not even on a brief drive-through but on previous Times reporting and five-year-old statistics.
Stephens points to Apr. 12, 2015, as the dividing line between Baltimore as a functioning metropolis and the city as murderous cesspool. That’s the date Freddie Gray got into a police van alive and somewhere along the way lost his life.
“Peaceful protests and then violence ensued,” Stephens wrote last Friday, July 17. “A demoralized, under-resourced and sometimes corrupt police force stopped doing its job properly. Nearly 30,000 residents have since fled the city, whose population is now the lowest it’s been in a century.”
But why date the population drop to a century ago?
Or to five years ago?
In the post-World War II years, Baltimore had nearly 1 million residents, and it’s now down to barely 600,000. The vast majority fled long before Freddie Gray and before the city’s streets were bloodied with about 300 killings a year.
We live in a moment when the great civil rights leader, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), goes to his grave and thousands march through America’s streets declaring, “Black Lives Matter.”
Yeah, but black lives mattered so much to several generations of white people that they tripped over themselves fleeing the city. This is a 60-year exodus, at least.
And it’s not just Baltimore.
When America’s mass migration from city to suburb was going full throttle, people like Lewis were getting their heads busted in places like Selma, Ala., for daring to ask for the right to vote. At the same time, in Baltimore you had restaurants, swimming pools and private schools still shutting their doors to black people.
Many whites found such conflicts unsettling, and reason to move to “safer” ground.
The city’s public schools were immediately integrated in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic desegregation order. But most of the surrounding counties dragged their heels for years.
This, too, fueled the rush from city to more comfortable suburb. Thousands of white parents dreaded the thought of their kids going to school with blacks. They dreaded it so much and for so long that by the 2019-2020 school year, the city’s public schools were just 7.6 percent white.
That takes us back to Bret Stephens’ argument about Baltimore and crime, and it’s where he comes up short.
Of those 300 city homicides every year, and all those hundreds more non-fatal shootings, the vast percentage of these are African-Americans shooting each other.
“In the protests and violence that followed Gray’s death, the police were urged to hold back until they came under attack: 130 officers were injured and the National Guard was called in,” Stephens wrote. “Toxic relations between the police and the city’s political leadership made matters worse. … A new mayor touted the benefits of after-school programs and social mediators to treat the root causes of crime. But … people inclined toward lawbreaking increasingly thought they could do so with impunity.”
Yes, by all means, let’s mock after-school programs and social workers.
In Stephens’ bid to make Baltimore officials look like a bunch of soft-headed liberals, there’s something he doesn’t mention about “people inclined toward lawbreaking.”
They tend to be desperate.
They’re the ones who have been left behind as the city’s been emptying out, and most have been people of color, and they’re people without money or decent jobs.
In the city, which is 63 percent African-American, the median white income is nearly double that of blacks. Black unemployment is three times higher than whites.
Roughly one-third of black households have zero net worth, compared to 15 percent of whites. Tens of thousands of the old industrial jobs that supported generations of working-class families have disappeared.
An entire new underground economy was created in the aftermath of the industrial collapse, and it was built on the point of the narcotics needle.
And all of this was before the coronavirus plague, which has hit people of color harder than whites in every conceivable way.
In his final hours, John Lewis was still calling for the good fight against racism. The most heartening thing about all those street demonstrations is the racial mix. It looks like America out there.
Maybe it’s a hint that we’re finally learning to live more easily with each other, instead of running from each other or leaving every problem to the cops.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).