What really ails our cities

My impression is that Baltimore was particularly hard hit by the last recession and hasn’t really recovered. But, as I have argued, this doesn’t mean that cities hit less hard are immune from the kind of rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray.

Colbert King of the Washington Post makes this point. He contends that Washington, D.C., which is nearly recession-proof, shares the same basic ills as Baltimore, and thus could easily erupt.

What are the “ills” King identifies as common to Baltimore and Washington? Relying on figures from Peter Tatian of the Urban Institute, King cites the following:

Births to teen mothers; families headed by single women; violent crime; where police recorded gunshots; people age 25 and older without high school diplomas; the unemployed; people living below the poverty line; and welfare and food stamp recipients.

There is no mention here of incidents of police brutality or, indeed, of any police conduct other than the entirely passive act of “recording gunshots.” (Later in his column, King mentions juvenile arrests, but does not suggest that the police force is in any way to blame for them).

King, a liberal African-American, thus recognizes the reality I noted immediately following Gray’s death: the Baltimore protests are not really about the police. As he puts it, the ills of Baltimore and Washington “exist without factoring in police relations.”

I would take this analysis one step further. It is difficult to imagine how community relations with the police force, whatever its racial composition, can be other than rocky given the ills King cites. After all, the police force bears the nearly impossible burden of maintaining some semblance of order in neighborhoods plagued by social pathology, family destruction and generations of dependency.

In this context, as King correctly concludes, reforming the criminal justice system is largely beside the point if we’re talking about what really ails our cities.