Black Agenda Report, May 13, 2015
The reluctance of “mainstream” United States media to deal forthrightly and seriously with U.S. racism deeply understood can be quite pronounced. Consider the “Public” Broadcasting System’s nightly Newshour episode for Thursday, April 30, 2015. It aired one day after Baltimore’s Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise the Orioles took the unprecedented, MLB-approved step of banning fans from a game.
The Orioles determined that protests and riots sparked by the Baltimore police’s murder of the young Black man Freddie Gray threatened the safety of the Orioles’ mostly white fans. And so the Orioles played the Chicago White Sox in an eerily “closed” game at Baltimore’s showcase Camden Yards.
“When the Jobs No Longer Exist”
The Newshour featured a remarkable interview with Orioles Vice President John Angelos, son of team’s owner. Reflecting on the unrest that brought the National Guard into Baltimore, Angelos spoke to Newshour host Gwen Ifill about how “the system has failed Baltimore.” Angelos’ comments were not the sort of thing you commonly hear from members of the U.S. economic elite:
“…the system is failing…the diminution of manufacturing jobs and good, high-paying quality jobs in cities like Baltimore and regions throughout the country….the massive loss, the exportation of good, high-paying jobs for working-class people has been a tremendous source — in fact, the most significant source – of civil unrest, civil misery …Having grown up here as a native and seeing the difficulties of factories moving from Baltimore, the shipyard areas, the manufacturing areas, relocating to foreign parts of the globe, [I think] it’s difficult to ask people to work hard and pull themselves up when the jobs that used to be here for prior generations no longer exist.”
There’s no small and welcome distance between Angelos’ rueful reflections on capital’s abandonment of the urban working class and the standard elite charge that inner city-poverty is primarily the result of poor folks’ own culture, values, and “bad choices.” Angelos placed the real and underlying blame on the investor class’s globetrotting thirst for cheap labor. Interestingly enough, his father, Orioles owner Peter Angelos, grew up working class and made his treasure in labor law.
Beyond John Angelos’s candor on capitalist failure, three other remarkable things stood out in the Newshour’s Angelos interview. The first such aspect was the skepticism towards the younger Angelos’s analysis displayed by Gwen Ifill. A longtime hack who can barely contain her love for the United States’ corrupt major party electoral politics, Ms. Ifill seemed taken aback by the elementary observation that mass structural unemployment might have anything to do with urban protest and violence. She also suggested that Angelos’s comments might be seen as “politicizing a tragedy” – as if the murder of Freddie Gray and the riots and marches that followed were not already a thoroughly political and politicized news story.
The second remarkable thing about the Ifill-Angelos dialogue was the opportunity it provided for a top Orioles executive to shed what many Baltimore residents might understandably see as crocodile tears over the terrible consequences of neoliberal capitalism for working people. As the Left sports and politics commentator David Zirin noted in an incisive commentary at The Nation, Camden Yards and other shiny and largely publicly financed ballparks built in major U.S. cities in recent decades are monuments to post-industrial “sports-driven apartheid.” As Zirin explains, these stadiums were sold to metropolitan citizens and authorities with the misleading assurance that they would anchor a robust “service economy that could provide jobs and thriving city centers” to help make up for the disappearance of manufacturing employment. In reality, “this sports-centric urban planning has been a failure. It’s been an exercise in corporate welfare and false political promises. What the stadiums have become instead are strategic hamlets of gentrification and displacement. They have morphed into cathedrals to economic and racial apartheid, dividing cities between haves and have-nots, between those who go to the game to watch and those [predominantly white and affluent and largely suburban fans] who go to the game looking for low-income work.” And nine years ago, Zirin added, the Orioles waged a vicious struggle against Camden Yards employees (“some of whom lived in area homeless shelters”) when those workers organized to demand a living wage.
Deleting Racial Oppression
The third remarkable feature of the Ifill-Angelos exchange was its total avoidance of race and racism and their central relevance to the disorder in Baltimore. The protests and riots in the city were sparked, after all, by a recent and gruesome episode in a long and ongoing record of “law enforcement’s” use of deadly force against U.S. minorities and most particularly against young Black men. The Freddie Gray murder is just the latest in a seemingly endless string of such police killings to receive national media attention and to spawn mass protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Four decades of cross-racial job loss resulting from capitalist “deindustrialization” and (more accurately) globalization certainly has naturally created relevant structural and historical context for any “civil misery and unrest” that emerges in contemporary Baltimore or in any other major U.S. metropolis. But let’s keep it real about who the system is most particularly failing and subjugating in not-so “post-racial” America. White working class people are up against terrible odds, thanks primarily to the amoral depredations of big capital and its corporate-financial Deep State. It’s silly to call such folks “privileged” just because they are Caucasian. Still, working class whites do not remotely face the same level of oppression, bias, and inequality as what the Black working class experiences in the U.S. today. The long, deadly, and newly publicized record of police violence against Black Americans takes place in a context of persistent harsh racial segregation and intimately related racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households. The Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites – as usual. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports that an astonishing 40 percent of the nation’s Black children are growing up beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Roughly 1 in 5 Black and 1 in 7 Hispanic children live in “extreme poverty” – at less than half the poverty measure – compared to just more than 1 in 18 white, non-Hispanic children.
This radical race disparity both reflects and feeds a four decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking. More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black even though Blacks make up less than 12 percent of the nation’s population. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law Professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record. Criminal marking is a lethal barrier to employment, housing, education, voting rights and more for the nation’s giant and very disproportionately Black army of “ex-offenders.” It makes “re-integration” next to impossible for many, feeding a vicious circle of poverty, crime, joblessness, family disintegration, jailing, and recidivism.
Contemporary U.S. policing is about keeping Blacks in their place in more ways than one. The Baltimore metropolitan era is the nineteenth most segregated metropolitan area in the US. It has a Black-white residential “segregation indice” of 65.4, meaning that two-thirds of the region’s Blacks would have to move to a different neighborhood be geographically distributed exactly like whites. Such extreme residential segregation has little to do with Black choices. It reflects class and racial bias in the operation of real estate markets and home lending and the persistent reluctance of many Caucasians to live in racially mixed communities. It is highly relevant to the nation’s steep racial inequalities because place of dwelling is strongly connected to social and economic status and opportunity. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.”
By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a certain restricted number of geographical places, American de factoapartheid reinforce Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. That basic underlying concentration of poverty and its many ills (including crime, addiction, and family fragility) is deeply reinforced by the nation’s four-decade campaign of “racially disparate” (racist) mass imprisonment and felony branding, conducted under the cover of a “war on drugs.”
The prevailing pattern of harsh racial de facto apartheid predates the relative disappearance of manufacturing and shipping jobs that John Angelos bemoans. It also postdates that deindustrialization, exacerbating the impact of “good job” loss on Blacks, who have far less access to such viable job networks as can still be found in urban America is the new neoliberal/global era.
“All of Your Questions”
In a chillingly Orwellian commercial that “P”BS has run for years, Gwen Ifill declares that she loves her Newshour job because it allows her to “ask not only all of my questions but also and more importantly all of your questions.” Really, Gwen? I would have followed up John Angelos’ reflections on the terrible impact of capital disinvestment and job “exportation” by asking him to elaborate on the distinctive barriers to opportunity and equality faced by Black people in urban America. This is what Ms. Ifill (herself Black) asked Angelos instead: “That said, when will the Orioles be back at Camden Yards?”
The New Jim Crow Minus Race
The Newshour was not through doing somersaults to avoid race and racism after the Angelos-Ifill interview last April 30th. The show’s next segment presented viewers with a curious display of “left-right unity” regarding the problems of over-incarceration and felony marking in the U.S. Representing “the right” was Mark Holden, a policy staffer from Koch Industries, owned by the arch-reactionary Koch brothers. Standing in for “the left” was Neera Tanden from the centrist Center for American Progress (CAP), corporate Democrat Hillary Clinton’s favorite think-tank. Here was the Newshour’s set-up for the segment:
“The figures are staggering…While the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses more than 20 percent of its prisoners. In a significant shift, groups on opposite sides of the political spectrum, that often find themselves at odds – like Koch Industries from the right, and the Center for American progress from the left – are coming together with a common goal — to overhaul the country’s criminal justice system. Together they’ve launched the ‘Coalition for Public Safety.’”
The Coalition is dedicated to reducing the imprisonment of nonviolent offenders and to cutting barriers to employment and re-entry for people with prison histories and felony records. As Ms. Tanden explained, “we’re concerned with the challenges of rising inequality and how the criminal justice system is actually increasing poverty…when you have a young person who goes into the prison system, that affects…their ability to get a good-paying job the rest of their lives. So you’re not just burdening that person, you’re burdening their families. You’re burdening the communities.”
That’s no joke. Ms. Tanden is quite correct, as a significant body of research (including material I have produced) demonstrates. And it is arguably a good thing to see arch-Republicans and corporate Democrats agree on the need to lessen the burden placed on poor Americans by mass incarceration and criminal marking.
Still, there was something very odd about this Newshour piece, something stranger even than calling the Center for American Progress “left”: a breathtakingly total deletion and avoidance of race in connection with the problems of mass imprisonment and the difficulties faced by “ex-offenders” in the U.S. It was an extraordinary omission. Race and (more to the point) racism are highly pertinent factors across the broad spectrum of socioeconomic disparity in the savagely unequal U.S. inequality, but nowhere are they more overwhelmingly and (one would think) inescapably relevant than in the nation’s “New Jim Crow” criminal justice system – from surveillance and arrest through jail, bail, trial, conviction, sentencing, probation, imprisonment, parole, felony marking, and execution both within prison walls and on the streets.
It might seem bizarre to see race and racism omitted from discussions of urban poverty and the New Jim Crow criminal justice system on the supposedly liberal “public” broadcasting network. In reality, the omissions are consistent both with the deep, privilege-friendly conservatism of “P”BS and with the post-racial mythology of reigning “neoliberal racism” in the Age of Obama. Still, for someone with some basic working knowledge on contemporary U.S. racial oppression, watching such racially blind discussions feels almost as surreal as watching a Major League Baseball game broadcast from a big city ballpark without a fan in the stands.
Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, IA. His publications include Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman&Littlefield, 2007) and The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, and Jobs in Chicago, Illinois, and the United States (Chicago Urban League, October 2002).