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We're Talking About Police Misconduct But Poverty Is Another Story Entirely

Federal and state lawmakers have been quick to respond to law enforcement's targeting of unarmed black men by slapping body cameras on cops. But we've ignored another solution: fighting poverty and high unemployment of African Americans.
Perlman Street in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo: Dorret/Flickr)

Perlman Street in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo: Dorret/Flickr)

There was a time, not so long ago in a public debate not so far away, when many Americans wanted to keep the poverty discussion at arm’s length. The indelible flashpoint known as Ferguson offered hope that attention would zoom in on the socio-economic climate that suburban St. Louis cops preyed on more so than the destructive G.I. Joe toy sets they brought with them once residents were fed up.

Instead, the dominant school of thought since Ferguson has assumed that frustrated or angry #BlackLivesMatter protesters were almost exclusively reacting to police violence and brutality. And while doubting law enforcement is a difficult proposition for most white Americans, with 63 percent nationwide reporting high or average amounts of trust in the police, it’s still notable that a rather large amount (if not a majority) of white Millennials—45 percent—don’t trust the justice system.

But that’s not surprising since, as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza correctly points out, young people pretty much don’t trust anyone anyway, with only 50 percent trusting police “only sometimes or never to do the right thing.” Ferguson, along with the tsunami of public outrage over an endless string of unarmed black men being killed by cops, just so happened to find itself crashing against a libertarian-leaning wave of youthful skepticism on everything from National Security Agency surveillance, drones, and the now-waning war on marijuana. It’s that particular wave that Republican presidential hopefuls such as Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) are betting quite a few chips on to help them win the White House in 2016.

The latest Rasmussen poll shows a majority of voters perceiving the Baltimore "riots" as "criminal," with 68 percent of whites predictably seeing it as another case of "criminals taking advantage of the situation."

You could say timing is everything. This emerging lack of tolerance for police misconduct becomes an easier cause for sympathetic (and mostly Millennial) publics to get down with. It has also forced bi-partisan hand-holding on formerly glass-ceiling topics such as criminal justice reform, where ideological rivals now talk regularly about better ways to keep young men of color, especially young black men, out of jail. While the Obama administration secures funding for body cameras, states and municipalities are quickly passing mandatory body camera policies to the chagrin of police lobbies. Many policymakers in Washington are already expressing relief at a job well done because, finally, they’ve managed to break through the usual impasse toward something they can all agree on.

But here’s the problem: no one was really having a robust discussion on the lingering cycles of poverty that set many young people of color up for failure in the first place. Politicos might be elated to find common ground on overhauling criminal justice, but that’s a cart before the horse discussion. The events in Ferguson didn’t spark this critical conversation since it was complicated for most Americans to put “suburb” and “poverty” in the same thought. We normally view our riots, uprisings, and ugly unrest scenarios as urban phenomenon (generally fulfilling a stereotype that it’s only black people in urban settings with a genetic propensity for rioting when, clearly, every New Hampshire pumpkin festival and NCAA playoff proves that’s not the case).

Yet suburban poverty is on the rise, aggravated by recession and a tragic deer-caught-in-headlights response from local governments—as research from Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program and others has shown over and over again.

Recent events in Baltimore have, at least, forced a national discussion on poverty even if no one’s moved the needle on it yet. That’s the most hopeful aspect of the crisis, even if poverty in Baltimore and elsewhere remains the same. There’s still no national campaign to eliminate a rather high 15 percent national poverty rate—and in Baltimore citywide poverty is 25 percent while the black poverty almost matches it at 24 percent. Baltimore pushes the state of Maryland to ninth on a top 10 list of places with the highest foreclosure rates. A recent City Observatory report shows poverty in Baltimore, and many other American cities, is just as high (if not higher) now as it was in 1970. Unemployment is an official 8.4 percent there, but that hides rampant under-employment and a much worse situation for black men: As of 2012, as many as 42 percent of working-age black men between the ages of 16 and 64 were unemployed.

That’s an uncomfortable discussion to have, and it’s much harder to address or execute an anti-poverty strategy when everyone is shying away from it. Slapping body cameras on cops and reforming procedures only gets you so far, with legislators, after a while, satisfied with simply finding better and more humane ways for police officers to herd impoverished human cattle—yes, there is something nefariously neo-plantation about that. Ultimately, that won’t do much to change living conditions on the ground.

In spite of this evidence, most of white America has yet to connect this sense of instability to the socio-economic challenges faced by many African Americans. Hence, while Americans are beginning to accept police misconduct as a greater problem (see: that visceral, apple pie American fear of government “overreach” and police states), there is some detachment from the more important discussion of poverty that serves to dismiss what many see only as “black people’s problems.” The latest Rasmussen poll shows a majority of voters perceiving the Baltimore “riots” as “criminal,” with 68 percent of whites predictably seeing it as another case of “criminals taking advantage of the situation.”

That’s not really surprising. Most whites typically support punitive incarceration policies due to their tendency to equate crime with blacks and Latinos, according to a Sentencing Project study published last year. And even as no discussion on poverty is complete without a discussion on race, the majority of whites would rather (unsurprisingly) not talk about it.

Speaking of timing, events in Baltimore were unfolding not only as a string of presidential candidates were announcing their 2016 bids but also at a time when Congress has been sparring over questionable budget cuts to a number of crucial social safety net programs. Baltimore is in the news just as unemployment numbers seem to fall every month, making us all feel better about ourselves—while discounting the very high under-employment numbers that make the Bureau of Labor statistics look intellectually dishonest.

And while all of this might raise partisan awareness or spur competing candidates to upstage one another as campaign ideation factories spit out talking points, it’s doubtful that discussion will translate into resources on the ground where it’s needed most.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.