Baltimore’s and Ferguson’s troubles stand in sharp contrast to the riots of the 1960s. These are much more about class than race. To be sure,there is a racial overlay. A disproportionate part of the African-American community is poor and under-priveleged. Otherwise, the racial divide is misleading, however much it fits the ambitions of some activists and the convenient story on which so many journalists so frequently lean.
Ferguson allowed more room for Department of Justice statisticians to rely on the old racial narrative. They had a town that was majority African-American but that had an overwhelmingly white police force. All authority was white, including the judges. It was easy for people of color and the Justice Department to claim a conspiracy or racial oppression, even though Eric Holder’s minions could turn up only one sign of overt racism, an ancient e-mail. Still, given the history of Jim Crow, one could readily understand why African-Americans felt as they did and why Al Sharpton had no trouble staging his standard race-baiting show. President Obama could engage in his own, more polite race baiting and guilt distribution practices. Most journalists cooperated, for their own reasons, some noble, some less than selfless.
Baltimore made all this much more difficult. The Mayor is African American, as is the chief of police and may of their predecessors. The police department, if not majority African American, nonetheless is far from white dominated. All the city fathers, including most judges are African American. If it is clear that the rioters are under-priveleged and have legitimate grievances, it is hard to claim white oppression, except perhaps in the most oblique and tenuous of ways. The circumstance readily raised questions about exactly who these people were protesting, to whom did they want to make it plain that black lives matter? Al Sharpton, no fool, could see the issues and stayed away.
President Obama was most interesting and revealing. Unlike in Ferguson and other instances, he showed no sympathy for the Baltimore protestors. On the contrary, he called them “thugs,” a reaction that in another circumstance he and others might have characterized as “blaming the victim.” He could do little else. Had he shown sympathy, much less the “solidarity” he has shown in the past, he would have implicitly condemned other prominent African Americans as oppressors. He had to choose. Along with Holder and Sharpton, he decided to side with his class, prominent African Americans, over the folks in the ghetto.
Michelle Obama seemed to underscore the message not too long after when she addressed the graduating class at prestigious Tuskegee University. She worried there about the “sting of daily slights we have felt throughout our entire lives.” No doubt she has, as have many others attending elite Tuskegee. Such slights are reprehensible, and we all wish them gone forever. But they pale next to the pains suffered by the poor of Baltimore. They are distinctly first world in the eyes of those who, though they live in the United States, lead a notably third world existence. There is no fault when people of a class commiserate with each other on the difficulties of their particular way of life, however small they seem to others. But one should not confuse them with the trials of people in dire need.