The first step in solving any social problem is learning how to pay attention and to observe what is happening. To be an ordinary citizen, one must become an anthropologist or historian, detached enough to try to evaluate the situation without preconceived prejudices, but someone who deeply cares enough about it to really try and understand it carefully. Or to put this another way, in every social situation, besides the participants and protagonists, there are observers, who usually are content to sit on the sidelines and watch.
These reflections are prompted by the remarkable events in Baltimore this past week following the murder of Freddie Gray, the subsequent protests and rioting, and weighing in by politicians, and then, on Friday, the surprising indictment of six officers for his death.
One of the strangest events of the week was the baseball game played on Wednesday afternoon between the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox. Because of the disturbances in the city, the lords of baseball decreed that it would be played without fans, the first time in the history of baseball, according to records dating back to the 1870s, that two major league teams played an official game with an official attendance of zero. It was an eerie game to watch on television, a game that like that famous tree that fell in the forest without anyone seeing or hearing it fall, raised all sorts of philosophical questions. Is a baseball game in which unapplauded home runs land in empty rows of seats, a game in which no one is cheered, no one is booed, in which there is no background buzz of attention and anticipation, in where hot dogs are not eaten and beers are not quaffed, really a baseball game? Does a baseball game have to be perceived to be real?
But the real question about this game and this situation has nothing to do with baseball. When we come to social problems, we are a nation of Bishop Berkeleys. If we don’t see something, if it is out of sight and out of mind, it might as well not exist. For many decades this has been a way of life in the black neighborhoods in America’s cities, where invisible men and women live in invisible communities, places that lack essential infrastructure in terms of businesses, schools, transportation, places of employment, and almost everything else. And those on the outside certainly do not watch the perpetual tension between the police and the local residents.
Let us be clear. Crime is a scourge, especially in minority neighborhoods, and the police are essential in lowering the rates of crime. But the irony in Baltimore, in New York City, in Rochester, in most American cities, as rates of crime have declined over the past two decades, the degree of intrusive policing in minority neighborhoods has continued to increase, past the point where the “broken windows” approach has any validity, and it became a form of harassment. For policing to be effective, it needs the cooperation of local residents, and the police cannot act as an occupying army. All too often, as in West Baltimore, pressure was put on the police to lower crime rates not so much to help the local residents, so that politicians can brag and run for re-election on their “tough on crime” stances.
And so in West Baltimore, North Rochester, South-Central Los Angeles, North Charleston, the Southside of Chicago, and other minority neighborhoods life goes on as if they were playing baseball in a stadium without spectators. Outsiders don’t watch and don’t care; the police can do what they want; the economic situation does not improve for decades, and when there are protests, the protestors are all too often demonized as thugs. It is fascinating that three of the six officers indicted in Baltimore are African American, as is the mayor and chief of police. This is a racial matter, but not a simple matter of white racism. All police officers are all institutionalized to be tough against blacks. And as long as most people of good will do not pay attention, nothing will change.
There is not enough space to detail what is needed in Baltimore, and in cities around the nation. But perhaps the most important thing is for people living elsewhere to really care about what is happening in our forgotten black neighborhoods, and to continue to pay attention once the immediate disturbances abate, and the next story hits the headlines. Because if we as a nation do not care about the social reality in Baltimore, it might as well not exist. What America’s black neighborhoods need above all, are passionate fans, who will sit in the stands and cheer and boo and care about every play and player.