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Defeatism in Baltimore

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Using the most bloodless terms, an economist explained the failure or inability of so many African-Americans to rise from their impoverished circumstances. They do not respond to the economic incentives that push others to study and strive, he said.   

Penniless peasants from Central America pile into freight trains to secure any job in the land of plenty. Black immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa are clearly moving up. So have many African-Americans who've left poor city neighborhoods for the suburbs and others who've remained.   

The economic incentives in this country flash neon lights to most of the world. The one thing that can dim them is defeatism. The rioters in Baltimore and others who defend their activities even halfway have mastered the defeatist language. The deck is totally stacked against poor blacks, they insist, so why even try?   

That's not to say they have a terrific hand to play. The moronic war on drugs has incarcerated huge numbers of black men in an undeniably racist way. A changing economy has made economic progress tougher for working people of all colors.   

The mass immigration of unskilled workers has burdened their native-born counterparts with intense competition for jobs. The immigrants are by and large excellent, hardworking people, but it's dishonest to pretend that the labor market isn't run by the rules of supply and demand.   

And what about Freddie Gray, who died after being held by Baltimore police -- the match that lit the Baltimore violence. It's part of an awful pattern of abuse, poor training and bad hiring in many urban police forces. It also reflects the genuine (and often justified) fear many police feel in encounters with angry young blacks. Every confrontation has its own story.  

But the claims that the city isn't doing anything for the poor black neighborhoods are a disconnect from reality. Is that why high-school kids burned down a CVS the city worked hard to secure for them and, even more inexplicably, a low-income senior housing project costing a reported $16 million?   

As expected, cable news has been looping footage of the chaos. That in itself attracts more violent exhibitionists and looters.  

So it was gratifying to see CNN airing a very intelligent (and long) interview with the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore. Bryant has led both the peaceful protests over Gray's death and efforts to stop people from attacking their neighborhood.  

"These were not gang members," he said. "These were high schoolers." Thus, he shook his head at the city's decision to close the schools the day after. "I opened up my church."   

Of the school kids, he stated: "They say nobody cares. More will care when they care about themselves."   

The defeatist mentality, by contrast, often comes off as militant but is actually passive: Nothing is being done for us. "They" haven't paid attention to our neighborhood. The CVS employing locals and a new home for the elderly were not nothing. Nor is the neighborhood's once-fine urban streetscape, which could be made handsome again. To get there, though, one must think as an active builder, not as a plaything of uncaring forces.  

The positive coming out of the Baltimore story was how many black residents of the blighted neighborhood expressed love for their city and demanded to know why the kids weren't home studying. And there was the superb Toya Graham, the mother seen dragging her rioting teenage son off the streets.   

These kinds of forthright actions pave the road out of defeat. One need not move even a block to get there.   

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.


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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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