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More Freddie Thoughts

Solving police brutality is easy. Regenerating a culture where people don't know how to live is all but impossible

So, to return to the story after twelve hours, a few things:

1. Freddie Gray deserved more mercy than I gave him in the morning post. He came into this world with too many strikes against him. I regret having been so harsh on him.

2. I really have no sympathy for readers who claim I blamed Freddie Gray for his killing. We don’t know what happened, but it is, to put it mildly, highly suspicious that the man’s neck was broken while in police custody. There must be a full investigation and any cops guilty of mistreating Gray must be punished severely. To those whom much is given — like a state monopoly on violence — much is expected.

3. What prompted the frustrated tone of my post this morning is the sense that everybody retreats to their familiar positions whenever this kind of thing happens. So much of it is posturing, and so little of it will matter in the end. I think everybody who is speaking out and marching against police brutality is right to do so. But the Ferguson debacle makes me cynical. Michael Eric Dyson, whose column prompted my reaction, last year attacked President Obama for failing black people and failing the nation by not injecting himself as a hot partisan into the Ferguson situation. And yet, as the Justice Department investigation showed, Michael Brown was at fault in his killing. All that rage, and all that rioting, over something that was Michael Brown’s fault.

4. I don’t agree with all the conclusions of this subsequent Michael Eric Dyson column, but he makes some important points that I know many white people like me do not think about. I have a black friend who was humiliated years ago by a white cop in a traffic stop. When he told me what happened, I felt ashamed that he was treated that way. I know that people like me don’t see things like this, and don’t know what it’s like to have to fear that kind of thing. I confess that I don’t take it as seriously as I should.

5. What people like me — middle-class, educated, white — also don’t understand is what it’s like to be a cop — black, white, Asian — who has to go out every single day or night and face a world in which many, many people hate you, and would just as soon see you dead. Where people do the most terrible things to each other, often with guns. The poor exploiting the poor. I don’t know what that would do to me, having to confront that. My priest is a former cop whose spirit was broken by the violence, the despair, and the gaming of the system (by both criminals and cops) that he had to deal with day in and day out. I know that I wouldn’t have lasted two weeks having to deal with that. He quit his job when the anger he had at two petty thieves he was chasing, and who successfully evaded him, caused him to commit a minor act of property violence. He told me — this is in my new book — that he knew he was done because his anger had control of him. There is not enough money in the world to make me take a job policing the West Baltimores of this world. You either, I bet.

6. I talked to a friend today whose husband has been teaching for a decade in an inner-city school, and who in the past year has been teaching in a school with a mixed population (lots of poor kids, some middle-class kids). He’s a nice, idealistic, liberal young man. He didn’t go into the profession to make money, but rather to serve. She said he’s worn out from struggling with students who really don’t give a rip. They’re violent, they’re highly sexualized (and the boys are sexually aggressive), their parents are — or rather, parent is — usually disengaged, and school is the last place on earth they want to be. The defeating thing is pouring your heart into the mission, year in and year out, and having to see evidence that very few of these kids care. Whose fault is that? Theirs? Their moms’ and (absent) dads’? The school bureaucracy’s? Society’s? Everybody’s? Nobody’s? All that love and labor for next to nothing. No result. It exhausts you, my friend said. Listening to her, I know that I would become callous having to deal with that. I wouldn’t last a year in a school like that.

Twenty years ago, one of my college classmates took a job — her first after graduation — in an inner-city high school in Baton Rouge. On the first day of class, she told a tall African-American kid to take his seat. He looked at her and told her that if she didn’t watch it, he would wait for her after school, and rape her white ass. That’s exactly how he said it. She went to the principal’s office and turned in her resignation that day. She wasn’t prepared for a career of dealing with cretins like that, or working in a classroom where any kid felt emboldened to speak to a teacher that way. I think she did the right thing. But some other teacher had to come in and deal with that kid. And God knows how many good kids were stuck in that classroom, and because of their poverty had no choice but to submit to the rule of scumbags like the rape-threatener.

Whose fault is that classroom?

7. We all agree that Baltimore police brutality has to be addressed. Let’s say that the best-case scenario comes about re: police reform there. Does anybody think a new day is then going to dawn in inner-city Baltimore?

8. One of you readers said that the working class and poor white community is fast heading down the unwinding path of family collapse, drug addiction, welfare dependency, and chronic involvement with the criminal justice system. Yeah, probably so. I have mentioned before in this space my late sister’s stories about the messed-up kids she taught in her classroom — black kids and white kids both, all of whom were horribly failed, one way or another, by their own selfish parents. Teachers loved those kids and tried to do their best, but they could not save them. I found myself three years ago listening to a group of elementary school teachers in a Louisiana town (they wanted me to come talk about my Ruthie book) talk about how pitiful the impoverished kids in their inner-ring suburb school were. The kids were raised in conditions of neglect and sometimes abuse. These are public school teachers whose salaries were small, yet they were spending every extra penny they had trying to do for these children. They had detailed stories about how the parents were spending money that ought to have been going to providing for these kids instead on booze and drugs.

Whose fault is that? Society’s?

9. I’ve talked to firefighters who serve inner-city neighborhoods. The things they see day in and day out are incredible. These are communities that have come undone. There is little order there, except what men with guns — the cops and the drug dealers — can impress by force on the place. The disorder is key. I keep thinking about this from Robert D. Kaplan’s 1994 report in The Atlantic, titled “The Coming Anarchy.” Excerpt:

Built on steep, muddy hills, the shantytowns of Ankara, the Turkish capital, exude visual drama. Altindag, or “Golden Mountain,” is a pyramid of dreams, fashioned from cinder blocks and corrugated iron, rising as though each shack were built on top of another, all reaching awkwardly and painfully toward heaven—the heaven of wealthier Turks who live elsewhere in the city. Nowhere else on the planet have I found such a poignant architectural symbol of man’s striving, with gaps in house walls plugged with rusted cans, and leeks and onions growing on verandas assembled from planks of rotting wood. For reasons that I will explain, the Turkish shacktown is a psychological universe away from the African one.

To see the twenty-first century truly, one’s eyes must learn a different set of aesthetics. One must reject the overly stylized images of travel magazines, with their inviting photographs of exotic villages and glamorous downtowns. There are far too many millions whose dreams are more vulgar, more real—whose raw energies and desires will overwhelm the visions of the elites, remaking the future into something frighteningly new. But in Turkey I learned that shantytowns are not all bad.

Slum quarters in Abidjan terrify and repel the outsider. In Turkey it is the opposite. The closer I got to Golden Mountain the better it looked, and the safer I felt. I had $1,500 worth of Turkish lira in one pocket and $1,000 in traveler’s checks in the other, yet I felt no fear. Golden Mountain was a real neighborhood. The inside of one house told the story: The architectural bedlam of cinder block and sheet metal and cardboard walls was deceiving. Inside was a home—order, that is, bespeaking dignity. I saw a working refrigerator, a television, a wall cabinet with a few books and lots of family pictures, a few plants by a window, and a stove. Though the streets become rivers of mud when it rains, the floors inside this house were spotless.

Other houses were like this too. Schoolchildren ran along with briefcases strapped to their backs, trucks delivered cooking gas, a few men sat inside a cafe sipping tea. One man sipped beer. Alcohol is easy to obtain in Turkey, a secular state where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. Yet there is little problem of alcoholism. Crime against persons is infinitesimal. Poverty and illiteracy are watered-down versions of what obtains in Algeria and Egypt (to say nothing of West Africa), making it that much harder for religious extremists to gain a foothold.

My point in bringing up a rather wholesome, crime-free slum is this: its existence demonstrates how formidable is the fabric of which Turkish Muslim culture is made. A culture this strong has the potential to dominate the Middle East once again. Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims. Slums—in the sociological sense—do not exist in Turkish cities. The mortar between people and family groups is stronger here than in Africa. Resurgent Islam and Turkic cultural identity have produced a civilization with natural muscle tone. Turks, history’s perennial nomads, take disruption in stride.

How do they do it? What is the difference between these people and the people of the black ghetto of West Baltimore? Or the white ghetto of Appalachia? I’m guessing they don’t have a police brutality problem in Appalachia. But read that story, a classic by Kevin D. Williamson of National Review. Aside from more melanin, concrete, and police brutality in the former, there’s not a lot of difference between the hopelessness of life in West Baltimore and in Owsley County, Kentucky:

This isn’t the Kentucky of Elmore Leonard’s imagination, and there is nothing romantic about it. These are no sons and daughters of Andrew Jackson, no fiercely independent remnants of the old America clinging to their homes and their traditional ways. Having once been downwind of a plate of biscuits and squirrel gravy does not make you Daniel Boone. This is not the land of moonshine and hill lore, but that of families of four clutching $40 worth of lotto scratchers and crushing the springs on their beaten-down Camry while getting dinner from a Phillips 66 station.

This is about “the draw.”

“The draw,” the monthly welfare checks that supplement dependents’ earnings in the black-market Pepsi economy, is poison. It’s a potent enough poison to catch the attention even of such people as those who write for the New York Times. Nicholas Kristof, visiting nearby Jackson, Ky., last year, was shocked by parents who were taking their children out of literacy classes because the possibility of improved academic performance would threaten $700-a-month Social Security disability benefits, which increasingly are paid out for nebulous afflictions such as loosely defined learning disorders. “This is painful for a liberal to admit,” Kristof wrote, “but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.”

There is much here to confound conservatives, too. Jim DeMint likes to say that marriage is our best anti-poverty program, and he also has a point. But a 2004 study found that the majority of impoverished households in Appalachia were headed by married couples, not single mothers. Getting and staying married is not a surefire prophylactic against poverty. Neither are prophylactics. Kentucky has a higher teen-motherhood rate than the national average, but not radically so, and its young mothers are more likely to be married. Kentucky is No. 19 in the ranking of states by teen pregnancy rates, but it is No. 8 when it comes to teen birth rates, according to the Guttmacher Institute, its young women being somewhat less savage than most of their counterparts across the country. Kentucky and West Virginia have abortion rates that are one-fourth those of Rhode Island or Connecticut, and one-fifth that of Florida. More marriage, less abortion: Not exactly the sort of thing out of which conservative indictments are made. But marriage is less economically valuable, at least to men, in Appalachia – like their counterparts elsewhere, married men here earn more than their unmarried counterparts, but the difference is smaller and declining.

In effect, welfare has made Appalachia into a big and sparsely populated housing project — too backward to thrive, but just comfortable enough to keep the underclass in place. There is no cure for poverty, because there is no cause of poverty — poverty is the natural condition of the human animal. It is not as though labor and enterprise are unknown here: Digging coal is hard work, farming is hard work, timbering is hard work — so hard that the best and brightest long ago packed up for Cincinnati or Pittsburgh or Memphis or Houston. There is to this day an Appalachian bar in Detroit and ex-Appalachian enclaves around the country. The lesson of the Big White Ghetto is the same as the lessons we learned about the urban housing projects in the late 20th century: The best public-policy treatment we have for poverty is dilution. But like the old project towers, the Appalachian draw culture produces concentration, a socio­economic Salton Sea that becomes more toxic every year.

“The government gives people checks, but nobody teaches them how to live,” says Teresa Barrett, a former high-school principal who now publishes the Owsley County newspaper. “You have people on the draw getting $3,000 a month, and they still can’t live. When I was at the school, we’d see kids come in from a long weekend just starved to death. But you’ll see those parents at the grocery store with their 15 cases of Pepsi, and that’s all they’ve got in the buggy — you know what they’re doing. Everybody knows, nobody does anything. And when you have that many people on the draw, that’s a big majority of voters.”

Her advice to young people is to study for degrees that will help them get jobs in the schools or at the local nursing home — or get out.

Read the whole thing. Think about that line: “The government gives people checks, but nobody teaches them how to live.” How do you fix a culture where people don’t know how to live? Whose fault is it that these deep country white people don’t know how to live any better than inner-city black people? The police’s? Society’s? Wash, rinse, repeat.



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