Baltimore, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the new racial politics

Fred Siegel writes: In the summer of 1966, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach warned that there would be riots by angry, poor minority residents in “30 or 40” American cities if Congress didn’t pass President Lyndon Johnson’s Model Cities antipoverty legislation. In the late 1960s, New York mayor John Lindsay used the fear of such rioting to expand welfare rolls dramatically at a time when the black male unemployment rate was about 4 percent. And in the 1980s, Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry articulated an explicitly racial version of collective bargaining—a threat that, without ample federal funds, urban activists would unleash wave after wave of racial violence. “I know for a fact,” Barry explained, “that white people get scared of the [Black] Panthers, and they might give money to somebody a little more moderate.”

This brand of thinking, which I have called the riot ideology, influenced urban politics for a generation, from the 1960s through the 1980s. Perhaps its model city was Baltimore, which, in 1968, was consumed by race riots so intense that the Baltimore police, 500 Maryland state troopers, and 6,000 National Guardsmen were unable to quell them. The “insurrection” was halted only when nearly 5,000 federal troops requested by Maryland governor Spiro Agnew arrived.

In the years since 1968, Baltimore has proved remarkably adept at procuring state and federal funds and constructed revitalization projects such as the justly famed Camden Yards and a convention center. But Baltimore never really recovered from the riots, and the lawlessness never fully subsided. What began as a grand bargain to avert further racial violence after 1968 descended over the decades into a series of squalid shakedowns. Antipoverty programs that had once promised to repair social and family breakdown became by the 1990s self-justifying and self-perpetuating.

In the wake of the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and the 2015 West Baltimore riots, a new riot ideology has taken hold, one similarly intoxicated with violence and willing to excuse it but with a different goal. The first version of the riot ideology assumed that not only cities but also whites could be reformed; the new version assumes that America is inherently racist beyond redemption and that the black inner city needs to segregate itself from the larger society (with the exception of federal welfare funds, which should continue to flow in). This new racial politics is not only coalescing around activists claiming to speak for urban blacks—represented publically by groups like Black Lives Matter—but is also expressed in the writings of best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates. And Baltimore is once again center stage.

The West Baltimore rioters of 2015 didn’t call for more LBJ-style antipoverty projects but for less policing. In a “keep off our turf” version of belligerent multiculturalism, the rioters see police as both to blame for black criminality and as an embodiment of bourgeois white values. The old riot ideology referred to mostly white urban police forces as occupying armies; the new version sees even Baltimore’s integrated police force, under the leadership of the city’s black mayor and (until recently) a black police chief, as an occupying army. Withdrawing the police from black neighborhoods is the only acceptable solution.

In his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Coates described how his father, a former Black Panther and full-time conspiracy theorist, drove his son around West Baltimore “telling me again the story of the black folk’s slide to ruin. He would drive down North Avenue and survey the carry-outs, the wig shops, the liquor stores and note that not one was owned by anyone black.” Whites had “plundered” what belonged to blacks, his father explained, as they had done with once-great African kingdoms. Coates, who lived in fear of black street toughs as a teen, sees the police as a greater threat to black well-being than the drug “crews” and gangs roaming the streets of West Baltimore today. His vision, in part, is to free gang-ridden areas from the malign grip of white standards and aggressive policing. Coates has adopted his father’s view that “our condition, the worst of this country’s condition—poor, diseased, illiterate, crippled dumb—was not just a tumor to be burrowed out but proof that the whole body was a tumor, that America was not a victim of a great rot but the rot itself.” Not even a hurricane of violence, says the new riot ideology, justifies a vigorous police presence in black localities…

Baltimore is a city of many Freddie Grays. The 25-year-old Sandtown resident, a petty drug dealer who had been arrested 18 times, might have seemed like a flawed martyr. His death appeared to be the result of police negligence—he wasn’t fastened into a seat belt for the 45-minute ride to the police station and suffered a severe spinal-cord injury—rather than intentional malice. But in a city where one in ten residents is a drug addict, and in a state where ex-felons can vote, Gray represented a significant constituency. Showing, she said, that “no one is above the law,” state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby brought murder charges against the police less than two weeks after Gray’s death. “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace,’ ” she said. “Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.”

Mosby’s husband, a city councilman representing West Baltimore who has mayoral ambitions, gently described his rioting constituents as engaged in “a cry for help.” The rioting and looting had “nothing to do with West Baltimore or this particular corner in Baltimore,” Nick Mosby told a reporter. But Leland Vittert of Fox News stood with Mosby outside a West Baltimore liquor store as it was being looted, and the councilman refused to criticize the thieves. Looting, Mosby said, is “young folks of the community showing decades-old anger, frustration, for a system that’s failed them. I mean, it’s bigger than Freddie Gray. This is about the social economics of poor urban America.” It’s also about drugs and the unprecedented mass theft of opiates by many of the city’s gangs. According to the Associated Press, federal drug-enforcement agents said that Baltimore gangs targeted 32 of the city’s pharmacies during the riot, stealing roughly 300,000 doses of opiates such as oxycodone. “The ones doing the violence,” said a 55-year-old West Baltimore woman, were “eating Percocet like candy and they’re not thinking about consequences.”

“Justice for Freddie Gray” produced a withdrawal of law and order. The “army of occupation” retreated, murders surged, and thugs roamed the streets largely unhindered. The protest culture of the sixties ruled the day but without the hope once engendered, albeit mistakenly, by the incidents of that era. Great Society–inspired social programs failed to reduce poverty but succeeded in creating self-serving political machines that blame white conspiracies for the degradation of West Baltimore and other urban areas.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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