Freddie Gray’s unexplained death while in police custody has sparked new marches in Baltimore decrying the relations between law enforcement and black folks, but it has also, in taking this conversation to Baltimore, caused the conversation to evolve from the more mercurial dialogue than was present in Ferguson. Ferguson is representative of an exploitative power structure common in the American south where a majority black community is governed by white leaders and a white police force, and where, in Ferguson in particular at least, it was found in an investigation by the Justice Department that officers were encouraged to draw in extra income for the municipality through excessive and targeted fining of black folks, who were vulnerable to those fines precisely because of their being so thoroughly underserved by the municipality. It really should not be that surprising that the wounds of a system of veiled discrimination bled through the bandages and manifested itself in the blatant racial oppression of which Michael Brown was only the most visible causality.
The current conflict in Baltimore’s soul doesn’t seem so disturbing as that, if only because Baltimore is a majority black city with black leadership, and that leadership has encouraged and engaged with the marches in response to Gray’s death, which is markedly different from the response by leadership in Ferguson to militarize the police force, thus alienating law from society even further. Indeed, black leadership sympathizing with the community about systemic social inequality is no small improvement from white leadership exploiting and perpetuating that inequality.
But, as other writers have pointed out, despite the presence of black leadership, we still find ourselves mourning the senseless death of a young man, and, despite what still other commentators have said as to the relevance of such descriptive terms, we find ourselves shaken by the murder of an innocent black man at the hands of, for the most part, white police officers. We do not live in a “post-racial” America if differences in race are so crucial to explaining the different commonalities in life experiences for given socio-economic groups. Perhaps this case will help those, such as Bill O’Reilly and others of his cohort, who think that since a black man has been elected president we are past racism, understand how racism takes form, ignoring, as they do, first, that a lot of people didn’t vote for President Obama, and second, the important difference between interpersonal racism and institutional racism. Institutional racism involves the denial of services and opportunities to a specific group for such a period of time that even once those persons are allowed access to those services and opportunities, they are not in actual fact able to make use of those opportunities because of defeaters that arose from them not having those services and opportunities in the first place. It is institutional precisely in that it is a deeply engrained social structuring mechanism that transcends measures meant to limit it and is thereby a racism that is self-perpetuating.
Recognizing that the predominant form of racism in the 21st century is this cyclically systemic denial of opportunities is, of course, profoundly depressing, as it confronts us with the reality that institutional racism will not be only a 21st century problem, but will be the ruin of families for generations to come. But it’s useful to think on the institutionalization of racism by taking the idea of an institution metaphorically, and seeing that it is a system that people live in and which those who are not victim to it can only look in on.
Take the question of “why did Freddie Gray run?” To those, such as myself, who are not victim to the system of racial policing, it’s hard to understand why he would. For me, it would be irrational to run when I see a police officer looking menacingly at me; I know my chances of not getting caught are actually better if I act like I’m not guilty of anything, as I won’t be stopped. But this way of thinking betrays the fact that I think that I can appear not guilty. Gray’s experiences as black man formed a belief system where he didn’t think he could be perceived as anything other than guilty, so he ran, as he figured his chances of not getting in trouble were better if he ran than if he didn’t, as either way he was already guilty. The conditions of impoverished inner-city living create ways of life that make sense in that environment but don’t hold up against outside scrutiny from external standards of normalcy or reasonableness. An action can only be said to be rational or irrational in the context of the beliefs that that person actually holds – a person isn’t acting irrationally when they act in a way that is contrary to a belief that they don’t in fact hold, say, that they are innocent until proven guilty.
Gray had the right beliefs for his environment given his observations about the world he found himself in, and the warnings he heard from others of his background. He had the beliefs that it was rational for him to hold given the opportunities he was provided in life, and more importantly, the opportunities he was not provided. That those opportunities and his resulting belief system led to his death at the hands of law enforcement tells us a lot about the kind and the quality of the opportunities afforded to Freddie Gray and the millions of other young black men like him who are victims of racist institutionalized inequality.