The rioting taking place in Baltimore over the past couple of days is not the first nor will it be the last incidence of young blacks, mostly men, acting out in anger in central cities throughout the U.S. Unlike those who engage in thoughtful protest, violence is all many of these young people know.
They are part of a growing population of young people, a large percentage of which are black, who are disconnected from mainstream society. They have been chewed up a spit out by a flawed educational process, have access to minimal health care, feel targeted by the criminal justice system, and feel imprisoned in their own communities. Do these factors justify such behavior? Certainly not, but we are not seeking justification.
What we are seeking, what we must seek, is understanding. Until we understand the forces that drive such behavior we can only react to it and reaction only prompts a chain reaction. We need understanding if we are to have any hope of a meaningful resolution.
That being said, is the rioting in the streets in Baltimore any different than a group of cops losing control and beating a black suspect in the streets? History is full of examples in which seemingly peaceful groups of people can, when conditions are ripe, morph into a violent mob to which they seem compelled to relinquish their self-control.
That human beings have a propensity to surrender to the mob is a given and it is a powerful force of human nature. What concerns us are the factors that trigger such behavior.
In the case of white cops and young black men in urban America, the dynamics that trigger such violence are remarkably and ironically similar. In both instances, the triggering emotion is a heightened sense of frustration born of powerlessness in the face of forces that affect their daily lives. Let us remind ourselves that the overwhelming majority of African-Americans do not engage in senseless rioting in the streets of any neighborhood, let alone their own, and the overwhelming majority of police officers do not engage in the senseless beating of suspects of any demographic.
Young people living in poverty, hopelessness, and powerlessness are reacting to a world that does not seem to care about them and from which they see no escape. While this group includes people of all races, creeds, and ethnic heritage, African-Americans are disproportionately represented and possess a unique sensitivity to discrimination. This burgeoning population of Americans live in a world that is separate and apart from what is perceived to be mainstream society and the chasm that separates them is widening, relentlessly.
When these young people take to the streets, it is almost always begins as a reaction to what they believe to be police brutality or other forms of institutional racism.
The police officers who respond with violence are reacting to their own sense of frustration over their inability—their sense of powerlessness—to bring perpetrators of a virtual avalanche of criminal activity to justice in an environment in which they believe the courts to be ineffectual. Imagine how any of us would feel about a job in which the problems that keep us from doing our job are overwhelming and where our employer seems incapable of doing anything about it. None of this excuses this type of behavior but it does help us understand.
The reality that we face as members of a democratic form of government is that the world is changing faster than ever and the tools we have at our disposal are becoming obsolete. No matter how much some people might wish it, we cannot turn back the clock to a time when the white man ruled the roost and values were simpler and clearer. This is true whether you are viewing the scenario as a conservative or liberal, republican or democrat, tea-party member or socialist.
The combination of conservative and liberal policies employed by our leadership over the last 65 years are what brought us to this point in history. These policies did not work then and they have even less chance of working in a world in which the gaps that separate us as a people seem impassable; where the population is growing steadily more diverse; and, in which our elected legislators seem incapable of working together.
There are tens of millions of young people who feel disconnected from mainstream society and the number grows, daily. Somehow we must find a way to pull them into the mainstream, not shut them off from it. We need new ideas, new solutions; we need to think exponentially.
These new approaches must begin in our public schools where public school teachers are presently under attack by educational reformers who do not understand the challenges of public education; who think that simplistic, jingoistic solutions can solve complex problems; and, who are oblivious to the damage they do!
We must call upon professional educators to acknowledge that the way we have been teaching kids for decades no longer works. We need them to come together as a profession and seek new educational processes that are focused on the meeting the real needs each and every child and to create the necessary structure to support that effort.
To paraphrase Zig Ziglar, “if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting what we’ve been getting.”
The reader is invited to explore my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, where I offer a blueprint for action.